Sunday, 27 September 2020

Logo Case Study: Lakeshore Entertainment

The Lakeshore Entertainment logo is a fascinating example of how you can completely alter the tone and character of a familiar logo with a simple tweak of perspective.

Founded in 1994 by producers Tom Rosenberg and Ted Tannebaum, Lakeshore Entertainment Group was behind such films as Box of Moonlight, The Gift and the Underworld series. In its classic form, it's one of my favourite movie production logos, but in recent years has taken a turn down a more skin-crawling alley.

The logo, which shows the silhouette of a boy racing leaping with his arms outstretched toward a shimmering lake, initially existed as a still image, but acquired motion in 1997 with the release of Going All The Way, so that we saw this kid's journey as he hurtles down a boardwalk and into that final iconic pose. The emphasis, carried over from the original still logo, was on that moment of pure anticipation - the euphoric gap between the boy's feet leaving that firm, solid surface and plummeting downward into the waters, when he's hoisted himself up to the absolute peak of his physical capability (make no mistake, the kid is embracing air, not water, it's important that we never actually see the child succumb to the law of gravity). The motion logo adds another dimension, by opening with a close-up of the lake and immediately immersing us in this sparkling, pristine paradise, before pulling backwards to reveal the boy approaching from behind. His shadowy form, coupled with the fact that we never see his face, gives him a slight air of the uncanny, although this is largely counterbalanced by his unmistakably youthful figure, which emits a playful enthusiasm - also important, as by starting with such an immersive shot of those still, unspoiled waters, it's very tempting to interpret the boy's approach as a disturbance, the natural calm about to be completely obliterated by the boy's brand of lakeshore entertainment, as he dive-bombs the environs and fills them up with his terrestrial contaminants. The sepia visuals and soft flute tones, meanwhile, give the scenario a distinctly dreamy, nostalgic flavour, which clues us in that this is not only a perfect, idealised state of prepubescent bliss, but a distant one that continues to fade into memory. That uncanny child is less like a child than an avatar for an off-screen dreamer yearning to connect with that lost, only vaguely remembered euphoria. As the child disappears into this woozy landscape, the final image represents the nostalgic's ultimate aspiration, which is to stop time in tracks and remain frozen in this unblemished state for all eternity. That way, the child gets to experience a perpetual high, impervious to the brutal reality that, sooner or later, everything must come back down to Earth.



The Lakeshore Entertainment logo that appeared from late 2016 onward, starting with Underworld: Blood Wars, recreates the same basic imagery but somehow managers to completely revamp the whole thing, removing the dreamy, nostalgic aura of its predecessor and making the uncanny element more salient. This is achieved by switching our starting point, so that we begin not with that entrancing close-up of the lake, but down on the boardwalk, so that our first glimpse is of the underside of the kid's feet as he lumbers down the visibly wet wooden surface toward a lake which, this time, remains at a firm distance. The emphasis instead is on how looming and gangling the runner is; as shadowy and obscured as ever, attention is drawn in particular to his feet, which as a result of that uncomfortable opening close-up, seem monstrous (seen below, with audio from the opening to Underworld: Blood Wars, it's even more ominous, since those loud booming noises seem like the trudging noises of his feet hitting the boardwalk). The features of the lake itself are clearer, crisper and more splendid-looking than that sepia dream lake, and yet it lacks the same warmth and presence - it is just a flat backdrop against which our protagonist can flex his spindly proportions. In spite of his lumbering presence, he pulls off a graceful leap at the end, but the closing freeze frame feels carefully choreographed, more like a ballet than an expression of youthful spontaneity.


Same imagery; different logo. Compared to the original template, this newer logo offers not hazy escapism, but total immersion in the fundamental freakiness of the human form.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie (aka Yours Is The Earth, And Everything That's In It)

The most striking thing about "Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie" (9F03) is how it ends. In the past, I've been critical of Season 4 for its prioritisation of gags over story and its tendency to end episodes with glib wrap-ups that resolve the central problems in only the most superficial and nonchalant of ways, but let it be said that "Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie" has an extraordinarily good ending - one which, I believe, gave us our first proper glimpse into what the world of tomorrow might have in store for the characters. Having spent the latter stages of the episode denying Bart the privilege of bearing witness to his generation's equivalent of the moon landing, Homer promises his son that he will ultimately benefit from his seeming defeat in the long-term, after which we jump ahead several decades into the future, where the fifty-year-old Bart (now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) and seventy-something Homer are strolling through the streets of a seedy space age Springfield, and notice that the object of Bart's childhood fascinations is currently playing at the Aztec Theater. The series would get a lot more mileage from its vision of a futuristic Simpsons universe a couple of years down the line with "Lisa's Wedding" of Season 6, but here I think they manage to pack a wonderfully telling and succinct amount into this one short sequence. An immediate incongruity is created by the mixture of old-school science-fiction cliches (the hover cars, the flashy space age clothing) and the local environs looking as though they've barely progressed at all over the past forty years, but for the thick air of decrepitness that now hangs over them. It's a subtly pessimistic vision of what lies ahead, undercutting Homer's assurances, in the present day, that Bart is on the road to somewhere very special, although our single hint that the characters are living in a dystopian future comes in a cinemagoer's request at the snack bar for Soylent Green, which we all know is bad. Mostly, the pessimism comes from a sense of stagnation, from a civilisation that clearly hit its peak many years ago and has had nowhere to go but into decline. Callbacks to a sequence from earlier in the episode, where Bart was refused a sale by a ticket booth operator heeding a notice that he was not to admit Bart, feed into this sense of nothing moving on - the man who serves Bart and Homer in the future appears to be the same character, and if you look closely, the notice instructing him not to sell to Bart is still hanging in the booth. If you're particularly sharp-eyed, you'll not only notice that Moe's Tavern is still open, but that a senior Barney is lingering outside it (actually, I'm amazed that he would even live that long). Except that nowadays, of course, the episode's vision of a future where movie theaters are still going strong seems almost bittersweet in its optimism.

What I love most about the ending, though, is the way it seems to echo back to the opening sequence. The themes regarding the inevitability of decay and the displeasures of the aging process are reflected in the episode's very first gag, where the characters watch Star Trek XII: So Very Tired, a commentary not only on how much older the original cast of Star Trek was obviously looking with every new installment, but also the unenviable challenges in having to eke more and more life out of a long-running franchise, a point made especially salient in Kirk's jaded groan, "Again with the Klingons!" The echo to which I mainly refer, however, is in Abe's line, "Movies! What a rip-off!", which not only foreshadows the ending when Homer is charged $650 for two movie tickets, but basically predicts the entire episode trajectory. We are given every reason to believe that The Itchy & Scratchy Movie, despite the insane amount of hype it garnered on release, really wasn't worth the heartbreak in the end. But perhaps the journey was the important part.

The Simpsons crew were apparently hesitant about this ending, as they weren't keen on cementing Bart into a future in the Supreme Court on the basis of a running gag from this one episode. But it does feel entirely appropriate that we would see the adult Bart at the end, because "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" plays convincingly like a coming of age episode in which Bart is forced to make his first real transition toward maturity. When the episode starts, Bart is an incorrigible whirlwind of amorality - there isn't much of a rhyme or reason to his mayhem here, other than him having a whole lot of anarchic energy to spare. Hence, we're treated to the dizzying sight of him ripping out Abe's dentures and spinning from a ceiling fan to sounds of the "Sabre Dance" from Gayaneh), and later trying to recreate the sounds of "Jingle Bells" by hammering sachets of mustard over the living room floor. By the end of the episode, when Bart has finally accepted his lesson in accountability, it feels as though a spark has faded from within him, and that this all-out anarchy will never quite hold the same allure. There is a very beautiful moment, near the end, marking the point at which Bart basically gives up hope that he will ever get his way, and we see a leaf fall from an overhead tree, which then transitions into a shot of the same tree with its branches largely bare, and the remaining leaves dead and shriveled. Naturally, this signals a substantial elapse in time, but on a symbolic level it also indicates the death of Bart's resistance, and a facet of his youthful innocence along with it. Subsequent episodes would, of course, confirm that his anarchic spirit was as robust as ever, but as a self-contained story this feels like a powerful enough turning point as to suggest no going back. Even between those two bookends, and their respective displays of decay and stagnation, the episode does wind up making a positive point about the triumph of personal growth.

A great micro-narrative, more succinct and perhaps even more poignant than Bart's loss of innocence, concerns Scratchy's loss of happiness.

"Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" is fundamentally about the relationship between Bart and Homer, but it was also an important episode for the titular cat and mouse, in building upon their history and establishing that, more than just mindless filler sandwiched in between an equally mindless local clown show, they were long-standing cultural icons, filling much the same niche in this universe as Mickey Mouse, Tom & Jerry and the Looney Tunes combined. We get a good range of affectionate digs at the Golden Age of Animation, notably a well-observed parody of Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, and there's likewise opportunity for a few self-depreciating gags about the show's own production, including a glimpse in a Korean animation studio that better resembles a sweatshop. The episode also satirises the concept of an "event movie", a phenomenon largely credited as having started with Steven Spielberg's Jaws in 1975, and which had only gained more traction in the multiplex age. By possible coincidence, the most obvious models for Itchy & Scratchy, Tom & Jerry, had just released a theatrical feature film, Tom & Jerry: The Movie, when the episode first aired on November 3rd 1992, albeit only in some European markets; the film would not receive its Stateside release until 1993, although the episode title does at least seem to have been in reference to it (note that it does not match the title given to the film in the episode itself). Elsewhere in the industry, the Disney Renaissance was officially underway, with Beauty & The Beast having made history by being the first animated picture to be nominated for Best Picture (and receiving a far more dubious honor here, in being the B-picture attached to the decades-delayed re-release of The Itchy & Scratchy Movie), and theatrical animation was suddenly getting general audiences excited again, not just genre enthusiasts or parents needing to keep the kids quiet for a couple of hours. Excluded from the theatrical action were The Simpsons themselves, and it's here that we might detect a poignant undercurrent to The Itchy & Scratchy Movie's great (if somewhat improbable success) - its function as wish fulfillment, in allowing the show to live out its own big screen fantasies vicariously through the cat and mouse. The Simpsons had only recently toyed with the idea of expanding its talents into the feature film arena, but it hadn't gotten far. James L. Brooks was particularly keen to release a theatrical Simpsons film while the iron was still relatively hot (the series had already exceeded expectations in lasting this long, and Season 4 was the point at which the series showed its first real signs of self-consciousness about its own longevity). Brooks had suggested that the premise of "Kamp Krusty" be expanded to feature-length, but came into conflict with showrunner Al Jean, who felt that the premise barely had 22 minutes worth of material in it, and was also dead set on having "Kamp Krusty" as the Season 4 opener.

I sometimes wonder how this hypothetical Kamp Krusty flick would have turned out had the rest of the crew shared Brooks' enthusiasm. I'm pretty sure how I can guess how the expanded plot would have gone - instead of inciting a rebellion then and there, Bart, Lisa and a few of the others would have escaped Kamp Krusty and hung around in the wilderness for a handful of scenes while they debated whether to return to civilisation or to go back and liberate the other kids. Obviously Bart would split from the others and have a change of heart, and then we'd have our climactic uprising. Basically a variation on the exact same plot they went with in the actual Simpsons Movie of 2007. It's easy enough to apply the formula when you've seen it play out numerous times. Anyway, maybe it's for the best that they didn't go that route, not least because the following year, The Addams Family Values yielded the ultimate arc in taking down the Summer Camp From Hell. I suspect that the film would have done okay at the box office, though it wouldn't have touched the same heights as Beauty & The Beast. The decade went on, and several other popular animated TV shows made the leap to the big screen, including Beavis & Butt-Head, South Park and Rugrats, yet The Simpsons remained a curious outlier. There were countless rumors that a Simpsons movie was coming, but for a long time they proved bogus. I suspect that what ultimately played their hand was that by the mid-00s the series had proven itself a cultural mainstay and was guaranteed a built-in level of interest. The Simpsons Movie was upfront in its opening scene (based around an apparent sequel to The Itchy & Scratchy Movie) about the underlying con that accompanies many an upgrade from small to big screen, when Homer points a finger directly at the audience and suggests that they are a sucker for paying for something they could have seen at no extra cost at home. He was right, on one level. The Simpsons Movie was functional, but it was no more innovative, distinguished or even memorable than your typical episode of the series. You may as well as stayed at home and marathoned a few classics. (Yes, I am still somewhat sour that they left Sideshow Bob out, wouldn't you know it?)

Ah, but maybe that's to miss the true point of such a venture. The real allure of The Simpsons Movie lay not in the prospect of getting an amazing ambitious Simpsons story, but in the experience itself of seeing it on the big screen. There is something very magical about seeing a familiar property in a theatrical setting, even if the film itself proves fairly middling. I can recall my excitement, aged 5, when I learned that there was a DuckTales movie on the way, and my anxiety to see it at absolutely the closest possible opportunity. In the end, the movie left less of an impression than the experience of seeing it. Treasure of The Lost Lamp was a fine way of passing 69 minutes, but even at the time I could think of numerous episodes of the regular TV series I considered better. It was the same deal with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie - I was thrilled when I learned that it existed, and then slightly perturbed when I realised it would be live action with actors in ghastly rubber suits, not a big screen translation of the cartoon series with which I was familiar, but a Turtles movie's a Turtles movie, right? For years, there were only two scenes from the actual film that stayed with me - one of the turtles (I forget which) spitting water into the face of one of the Foot Clan, and the final confrontation between Splinter and Shredder. But I never forgot the gleeful anticipation of wandering down that sticky cinema lobby to see it.

And so it is with Bart and The Itchy & Scratchy Movie. When he learns of the movie's existence, he's filled with the irrepressible urge to see it. The only thing standing in his way is his lifetime of misbehaviour finally coming to a head and Homer suddenly having a lock on his son's Achilles' heel. The episode starts out by suggestion that Bart's rambunctious behaviour stems from him being unfamiliar with the notion of consequence because Homer and Marge - but especially Homer - are totally ineffectual at disciplining him. The suggestion that Homer is incapable of administering any kind of negative reinforcement at all is obviously not borne out by the rest of the series, where Homer has an infamous tendency to throttle Bart should he challenge his parental authority. "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie", though, is more interested in whether or not Homer is capable of meaningful discipline that might give Bart pause about his personal choices, in part because Homer himself would sooner not have to deal with the responsibility of taking charge of Bart's behaviour. We see this in the first act, when Homer purposely ducks out of having to meet with Ms Krabappel at a parent teacher evening, preferring instead to get the sweeter end of the deal and take (undue) credit for how well Lisa is doing. Ms Krabappel, meanwhile, feels so strongly that Bart's misdeeds are a reflection of Homer and Marge's failings as parents that she subjects Marge to the very same rigmarole as Bart in the opening credits every week. Marge, after experiencing a nightmare vision dictating how Bart, if he does not better himself, could grow up to be a male stripper with an unattractive gut, comes away with a newfound resolve to lay down the law. It takes a while, however, for Homer to come up to speed. The middle portion of the episode, when it's not detailing the upcoming Itchy & Scratchy film, deals with just how easily Bart can manipulate Homer by playing on his own aversion to facing up to consequence. Eventually, though, Bart goes just a step too far and Homer cottons onto how to really hit him where it hurts, in forbidding him from ever seeing The Itchy & Scratchy Movie. From then on, the episode devolves into a battle of wills between Bart and Homer, with Bart's pining to see the movie weighing in against Homer's determination to keep the line drawn. Eventually Marge, who had previously criticised Homer for being too slack with his parenting, comes to Bart's defense and suggests that he might have made his point by now, but Homer refuses to back down. It's clear that Homer isn't punishing Bart out of spite, but of the sincere belief that his future life choices hinge on his own ability to lay down the law, and he reasons that to back out could nullify whatever lesson Bart otherwise might have taken. And apparently it works - by the end of the episode, when Bart concedes to Homer that he won, he does so with none of the resentment we saw from their previous discussion on the matter, imply that Bart ultimately respects Homer for sticking to his guns.

"Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" is an effective episode for how it taps into the one of the great universal frustrations of childhood. I think all of us at some point experienced the pain of having our heart set on something, only to be told no by an adult authority figure and eventually realising that we were powerless to change their mind and that our only recourse was acceptance. When Bart lets out that groan after being thwarted in his efforts to purchase a ticket without Homer's consent - basically, the point at which he realises that he's lost - it's powerful because we've all been there. Which is not to say that "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" is grounded in a gritty realism all throughout. Make no mistake, this is still a Season 4 episode, and there are few characteristically wacky gags thrown in. The incident that finally prompts Homer to draw the line - Bart's failure to keep an eye on Maggie results in the baby crawling into the family car and goes for a joyride - is frankly too ludicrous to illicit much concern on the part of the viewer. To think that something truly serious could have happened to Maggie. On a tonal level, it doesn't quite feel as though the punishment fits the crime, because Bart's upset seems raw, genuine and painful while Maggie's adventure is obviously way off the charts. Perhaps something with a bit of gravitas might have made it doubly satisfying when Bart finally accepts the consequences of his actions. But then atonement for whatever he might have done wasn't really the point of this particular journey. This is about Bart and Homer each learning to take responsibility for their side of the equation, and to respect each other all the better for it.

There is also a gaping big hole in the central scenario, which makes the final conflict seem curiously antiquated for a sitcom set in the 1990s. The success of Homer's chosen course of action hinges on the implication that once the movie has finished its theatrical run, it's gone for good, and Bart will have missed his opportunity to see it. This might have worked for a sitcom in the 1970s, or even the 1980s, when there was no guarantee as to if or when a theatrical film would be released to home video. By the 1990s, however, there is no way that The Itchy & Scratchy Movie wouldn't be lined up for an extensive afterlife on VHS and LaserDisc. On the DVD commentary, they concede that "nowadays Bart could see the movie on DVD", but what was to stop him from eventually seeing it on either of those aforementioned formats at the time? Not to mention that it would find its way to TV eventually. So the idea that Homer has banned Bart from ever seeing the film is highly questionable. (Obviously, it would be an even harder swallow in the 00s - not because of DVD, but because Bart could pirate a copy so easily on the internet). The episode blatantly isn't set in some strange time bubble where VHS never existed - the second act ends with a strange (but hilarious) non-sequitur, with Snake running through Evergreen Terrace with a stolen video system, only to register, to his chagrin, that he snagged an obsolete Betamax player.*

So realistically there would be numerous options for Bart. And even if Homer does somehow manage to prevent him from getting anywhere near a VHS release of the film, there's also the factor that Homer's parental authority comes with an obvious time limit. He couldn't reasonably forbid Bart from seeing the film as an adult. So what's to have prevented Bart from waiting until his 50s before finally watching that forbidden picture? Unless of course by the time he became an adult he had simply moved on and lost interest. After all, it's only a dumb movie.

That is of course the really bitter bugbear hanging over the back end of the episode. As much as the viewer shares in Bart's frustration in not being able to see the movie, we are given ample reason to believe that, no matter how many celebrities cameo and how many Academy Awards it walks away with, it probably isn't that good. We're told from the very first promo that it contains only 53% new footage, so the odds are that Bart has seen less than half of it already. To say nothing of the larger question of how a formula as basic as Itchy & Scratchy's could be adapted to longform storytelling (Tom & Jerry: The Movie did it by effectively ditching everything about their property's established formula, and audiences didn't exactly take kindly to that). When asked for her honest review, Lisa proclaims that it was the best movie she's ever seen in her life, but I'm not convinced that her enthusiasm stems from the movie itself as from the excitement of participating in such a hotly anticipated cultural event. I suspect that what's really been eating Bart this entire time, even if he did foresee the film coming to VHS sooner or later, is the pain of being excluded from the same event. It's not so much about the movie, but the thrill of being part of a shared experience bringing the rest of the world together. By not having seen the film, Bart cannot be on quite the same wavelength as everyone else, and when he tries to substitute with something from his own imagination, gets nowhere - having to go it alone is precisely what he doesn't want, after all. "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" is about the tortures of being shut out of zeitgeist, of never quite being able to get what the rest of the world is so enraptured with, but it also works as a cautionary fable about the perils of putting much stock in the dictations of zeitgeist in the first place. It seems unlikely that the film could ever live up to the hype, and in the end it doesn't. When, ultimately, we catch a glimpse of the tantalising feature, there is nothing to distinguish it from your typical Itchy & Scratchy episode. What's more is that Itchy & Scratchy as a whole might have lost some of its luster in the intervening years - it seems to have finally occurred to a nonplussed Homer that the series is based on the central premise of Itchy being a jerk, with which Bart cannot disagree.

The writers had different ideas over how to handle the movie. Their initial idea was to go the opposite direction and make it extraordinarily violent in ways that made the regular series appear quite tame, but that never got further than the scripting process. For a while, they intended for the viewer never to actually see the screen itself, only Bart and Homer watching it, but decided that the viewer would feel teased if they never caught a glimpse of the great McGuffin, and the footage from the movie was apparently taken from a regular cartoon we were supposed to see earlier in the episode. It was a smart decision. I think it was important that the movie would ultimately lose its mystique by the end, so that the viewer can see that the real victory was not in Bart finally getting to indulge his boyhood fascination, but in his having overcome his differences with Homer. This is where the real emotional pay-off of the ending lies, and in a way it possibly explains why Bart might not have chosen to see the film on his own terms, as by now he respects his father enough to only want to see it with his blessing. Actually, there's nothing to definitely confirm that he hasn't already seen it by this point - what's important is the final symbolic act of his seeing it with Homer, and his laughing and putting his arm around his father in the final image, thus positing that they are both now clearly equals, the antagonistic parent-child having given way to a mutual friendship. Neither Bart and Homer seem terribly enraptured by the film itself - their real enjoyment comes from the understanding that they are finally seeing eye-to-eye.

To wrap-up, a couple of random side-notes. Firstly, when this episode aired on Sky One in the UK, it was yet another casualty of their stringent cutting, with just about every Itchy & Scatchy sequence being truncated in some way (the Steamboat Willie parody, for example, included the part where Itchy shoots Scratchy in the kneecaps but cut the subsequent bit where Itchy kicks the wounded Scratchy's into the furnace). Also excised entirely was the blood-leaking billboard advertisement and its barber shop replacement. In fact I think That Happy Cat and the movie itself were the only Itchy & Scratchy sequences that weren't butchered in some way.

Secondly, here's a mystery that still perplexes me to this day. A snippet of dialogue from this episode was included in the 1997 soundtrack release Songs In The Key of Springfield. Track 26 was entitled "TV Sucks!" and consisted of the portion of the episode where Homer regales Bart with the story from his own childhood detailing how, when Abe wouldn't buy him a catcher's mitt, he held his breath in protest and banged his head on the coffee table, possibly incurring brain damage. Obviously, this isn't a song, and it's conspicuously out of place on the album, being the only sample of dialogue that's used as a stand-alone and doesn't segue into a musical sequence (Homer's "Honey Roasted Peanuts" monologue from "Boy Scoutz 'n The Hood" is also included as its own track, but it does tie in with the succeeding track with Bart and Milhouse's musical number). Instead, it's sandwiched awkwardly in between "Baby on Board" from "Homer's Barbershop Quartet" and the Planet of The Apes suite from "A Fish Called Selma". In the end I have to ask much the same question as Bart does - what's the point of the story. Is the answer possibly as simple as the one Homer gives?

* A functional Betamax player would of course be worth a whole lot now. Let's hope that Snake had the foresight to hang onto his booty.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #28: Disney Dalmatian Hopefuls

My nostalgic biases are probably showing, but for me, the experience of trawling through the extras at the back and front of a Disney videotape lost a lot of its mystique when Sorcerer Mickey was banished and replaced with that garish bouncy splodge. From then on, they felt less like eerie portals into another world and more like routine tours of what Disney was eager to sell me this season. Occasionally, though, they would throw up something sufficiently skin-crawling, and this promo for the 1996 remake of 101 Dalmatians certainly delivered the goods.

Curiously overlooked in the current debate over Disney's newfound love for cannibalising its animated classics to create live action analogues is that they went through a similar phase in the 1990s, only there they didn't get further than a couple of titles, with The Jungle Book being first to get the treatment in 1994, and 101 Dalmatians the last (although it proved a lucrative enough franchise on its own, also producing a sequel and a TV spin-off). Dalmatians '96 was influenced, no doubt, by the glut of live action animal flicks that dominated family cinema throughout the decade (such as Homeward Bound and Beethoven), and for as ill-remembered as the film is today, Disney hyped the living snot out of it at the time. And the campaign was hypnotically grotesque. One particularly bombastic teaser showed various world monuments sporting unsightly spotted makeovers to the sounds of "Also sprach Zarathustra". I also recall having to sit through a particularly long-winded preview before The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Then there was this promo, which was always lying in wait at the start of the Toy Story VHS, and which may have been the most grotesquely chintzy of them all.

In the end, it all turned out to be mutt ado about nothing, as the movie itself kind of blew. It has only one thing to recommend it, and that's that Glenn Close makes for a pretty delectable live action Cruella. Which is not to say that she comes up to the animated original to any capacity (no mere human could possibly hope to equal that masterpiece of fur and fury) but for what it's worth I think she provides a really solid flesh-and-blood translation of the character. It's not enough to compensate for the multitude of sins, however (the film's sexual politics seem mired in the 1960s, while many of its concessions to the modern age - eg: making Roger a video game designer - are really cringe-inducing, there are raccoons and skunks wandering around in what its supposed to be the English countryside, etc). The most ominous hint in this promo comes from the mention of the producer of Home Alone (meaning John Hughes), for about midway through, it feels less like a re-imagining of a beloved Disney classic than an attempt to ride the Home Alone bandwagon which was already wearing down its wheels by 1996.

That much is not betrayed in the promo, although it does let you in that the remake is going to be a tackier animal - actually, for the film to have featured this same onslaught of deeply unsettling kitsch would have facilitated a serious boost in character. The promo, which revolves around a faux casting call for the film's four-legged stars, is largely an excuse to unleash a cavalcade of dogs in obnoxious costumes, all of whom are promptly dismissed by an off-screen (and equally obnoxious) director - unsurprisingly, as, their pertinence notwithstanding, none of the dogs seem to be particularly great at their respective talents (except maybe the cat channeling his inner canine). The penultimate audition shows a young dalmatian with no obvious talent beyond being the desired breed, which impresses the director and takes us into our punchline, suggesting that this entire ridiculous process will continue until one hundred others like him show up. There then follows an epilogue in which the director contends with an imposter dalmatian who flings shoddily-applied body stickers all over his office.

I wouldn't call this trailer particularly wild or surreal - it's goofy and just about veers on the side of unpleasantness - but it got under my skin as a kid. I put that down in part to the chintz overload, but the really vexing question hanging over my head all throughout concerns whether we're supposed to see these dogs as auditioning via their own volition, or as taking their cues from off-screen trainers who have dramatically misread (or assume they can bypass) the specifications implied by a 101 Dalmatians talent search. The only hint of human intervention (besides the director's) is in the hand that reaches over to re-affix a fuzzy pom pom to a chihuahua - otherwise, there's nothing to confirm they're there. Are we intended to see the dog in the final audition as complicit in the deception (if rather carelessly giving itself away) or as unwittingly thwarting its trainer's improbable attempts to pass it off as a dalmatian? And to whom is the director speaking when he snaps, "Take those with you!" - the dog or some incorporeal handler? It's funnier (and more mind-bending), of course, to think that the dogs are doing this all on their own terms, but there is something faintly sinister about these fashion-deficient dogs being merely avatars for their unseen humans' misplaced grasps at glory.

Getting back to the chihuahua, just what is going during that audition anyway? Is its particular talent meant to be modeling pom poms, or is it another imposter attempting to get by in applying fake spots onto its body? (If the latter, then it possibly steals the thunder from the cumulative gag.) This promo has a few minor details that bug me - for example, the mise-en-scene includes a cloud backdrop which, for some reason, only features prominently during the ballerina dog's audition. I couldn't tell you what that's about either.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

J.R. Hartley Has Your Number (feat. Fortran 5)

Yellow Pages may have recently become a relic of a bygone age in the UK, with Yell officially ceasing physical publication and going completely digital in January 2019, but it leaves behind an enduring legacy for yielding one of the public's most fondly-remembered advertising campaigns. The "J.R. Hartley" TV ad of 1983 was part of an effort to reinvent their brand image, after years of being primarily associated with tales of human misery. It followed an elderly gent, played by Norman Lumsden, who is seen drifting from one second hand book shop to the next in search of an elusive publication called Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley. Returning home from an entirely fruitless expedition, he is advised by his daughter to try Yellow Pages and, after finally getting through to a store with a copy to hand, the ad closes on a twist accounting for his determination to locate such a thoroughly nondescript-sounding title - when asked for his name, he responds, "J.R. Hartley". Good old Yellow Pages! If Hartley's story doesn't raise a smile, then Joss Ackland's genial assurance that "We don't just help with the nasty things in life" certainly will. Even his example of the inescapable nastiness of life, a blocked drain, feels disarmingly quaint (it is, after all, little more than an everyday household inconvenience). This is an ad set on spewing rosiness from every orifice.

Before J.R. Hartley, Yellow Pages were hampered by the roadblock that their name had become synonymous with rotten luck and domestic calamities. The thinking behind Hartley was to represent their brand as a trusted source of guidance who could light the way down every avenue in life. Advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers came up with the scenario of a man attempting to locate an ordinary book of immense significance to him, and it worked; the ad resonated tremendously with the public. Memorably, it was parodied in an episode of Harry Enfield's Television Programme, where Tim Nice-But-Dim is attempting to get hold of the book, mistakenly believing that its elusiveness in the ad was due to it being in high demand. Remembered, presumably, by no one but me, is that it was also parodied in a skit from the second series of The Ant and Dec Show, where an aged-up Dec was attempting to locate one of PJ and Duncan's CD singles and, if memory serves correctly, replicated Lumsden's euphoric receiver clutch from the end of the advert. I was familiar with the Ant and Dec skit some years before I saw the original ad, and it mainly confused me. Seeing the source for the very first time was such an illuminating experience, if only because it finally helped make sense of an Ant and Dec gag that had been baffling me for half my adolescence.

The book in question was fictitious, although such was the popularity of the ad that an actual book entitled Fly Fishing was written by an angling enthusiast named Michael Russell and published under the pseudonym of J.R. Hartley in 1991 - eight years after the ad had aired, although its continued resonance enabled the book to become a bestseller, and yielded two sequels, J.R. Hartley Casts Again, which continued Hartley's riverside adventures, and Golfing, which saw Hartley broaden his horizons. Unlike their advertising counterpart, copies of these books are very easy to get a hold of.



It's not hard to account for the ad's enduring popularity. It is, in a word, charming, and fortified considerably the sincerity of Lumsden's performance. Which made it perfect fodder for those cheeky techno artists to work their wicked ways with in the soundbite era. Hence, "JR Hartley", a 1992 release for electronic band Fortran 5, which was utterly bent on taking Hartley down the depths of that dreaded blocked drain and immersing him in the nasty things in life. Here, Hartley is re-imagined as a kind of omnipresent menace who stalks and obstructs the telephone lines. His repeated assertions of identity are intersected with the frantic cries of Barbara Stanwyck's character from Anatole Litvak's 1948 film Sorry, Wrong Number, concerning a woman who overhears discussion of an apparent murder plot via a crossed connection, and also a sample from Michael Franks' 1983 recording "When Sly Calls (Don't Touch That Phone)". The flurry of mismatched soundbites suggest a perilous side to telephone communication, comprised of chaos, confusion, muddled connections and ominous, disembodied voices, with Hartley's reiteration of his moniker, both forwards and backwards, becoming emblematic of this - a total subversion of the cosy, reassuring aura of the original ad and its emphasis on the redemptive power of human connection. And while the use of the Hartley sample will seem instantly humorous to those familiar with the character, Fortran 5 certainly pick up and exploit the most sinister element of the original ad - the way Lumsden insists on hitting the t in "Hartley" is surprisingly intense for such a self-professedly "nice" advert.

Actually, I suspect the reason for the ad's continued resonance has less to do with it being "nice" than with its implicit narrative, which is understatedly poignant. We never learn the circumstances under which Hartley came to be without a copy of his own book, although it can be inferred that he at one time underestimated how much it would mean to him and allowed it to slip through his fingers, whether through negligence or willfully, and later came to regret his decision. The ending strikes such a powerful chord because it makes it clear that he's been chasing a part of himself all this time, and the ultimate connection, when it seems that he and his book will finally be reunited, is an internal one. Hence, the triumph in the closing declaration - he is, in a sense, only now getting to reaffirm who he is, having successfully reconciled with the part of his identity that he let go astray, that of angling writer J.R. Hartley.

Incidentally, according to this article from Marketing Week, in earlier drafts of the ad Hartley's book was not on fly fishing but European butterflies, and in another version he was not looking for a book at all, but attempting to buy his daughter a pony, ideas that were both ultimately rejected for being "too elitist". The pony I can understand, but who out there doesn't love identifying butterflies? I assumed that Fly Fishing was chosen as the title because it is wholly generic and conveys nothing in the way of the book's actual character. So, before we get to the twist, you might be questioning why the protagonist is so driven to find this book in particular, when there must be any number of publications written on the subject of fly fishing. Truthfully, I would have preferred European butterflies. In a parallel universe where that was chosen and some opportunist had decided to pen a book on the subject under the pseudonym J.R. Hartley, I can see myself being all over that.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Euro Disney Promo '91 (aka Tomorrow Always Comes)


So, yes, at the end of "Itchy & Scratchy Land" there is that sequence where Frink wonders how Euro Itchy & Scratchy Land is faring with a potential animatronic uprising. We then cut to the park's French counterpart to see that, in their case, nobody actually showed up. The park is completely devoid of visitors, while an exasperated ticket booth operator has the unbearable task of imploring to an indifferent public: "Who are you to resist it, eh?" Who indeed.

This, of course, was a gag at the expense of Euro Disney Resort, which in November 1994 had barely been open for two and a half years and already looked as though it might be headed for an early grave. In real life the situation wasn't quite as dire as nobody showing up at all (I was there in its opening year, so there's that), but despite CEO Michael Eisner's high hopes for the Disney brand's continued expansion and eventual global conquest, attendance numbers during the park's initial years were significantly lower than what was expected. There are multiple factors accounting for Euro Disney's underwhelming debut. The park had the misfortune of opening while a recession was underway, which was always going to be a massive thorn in its side. Another stumbling block was the significant backlash it drew among the French populace, for reasons well encapsulated by David Mirkin on the "Itchy & Scratchy Land" commentary, when he wryly remarks that Disney was eventually able to "force that culture" onto Europe. Many locals weren't wild about the prospect of seeing the beautiful French countryside swallowed up and replaced by this garish celebration of American popular culture, and shunned it accordingly. And the rest of Europe wasn't much keener. Obviously, the park endured and came through its initial brush with impending bankruptcy*, although not without having to jettison the Euro Disney moniker early in the game and rebranding as Disneyland Paris. It is still going today and can now claim the honor of being Europe's most popular tourist destination, although it has faced a lot of ongoing debt problems across its 28-year history. The park may no longer be the butt of jokes along the lines of Euro Itchy & Scratchy Land, but if the Disney suits could go back in time, I'm not convinced they'd be in such a hurry to do this one over again.

Ah, but everybody knows the story of Euro Disney's teething troubles. For now, I want to focus on a time when, for those of us of a certain age, the park represented hope, optimism and a bold new future. If you owned a copy of The Little Mermaid on VHS back in 1991 then you might recall that announcer who had the audacity to speak over Sebastian's end-credits reprise of "Under The Sea" to advise that we stuck around for "a special sneak preview of the most magical kingdom on Earth". If you obeyed then you were treated to this gem:



The promo (originally in French, although it is the English dub with which I am primarily familiar) could not possibly have been soppier in tone, and my brother and I used to riff on it pretty mercilessly back in the day. Cynical adult me would love to make some crack about Paul's dreams looking suspiciously like the products of corporate banality than any actual child's dream (apart from the detail about being zapped into oblivion by Captain EO, of course) but, truthfully, there are few things as purely, harrowingly nostalgic to me as the random odds and ends you found lurking at the opening or closing of a Disney VHS tape, particularly when they were still dark and spooky and patrolled by Sorcerer Mickey. For as hokey as this promo might be, my childhood hopes and fears are so firmly welded to it that revisiting it after all these years is such a bittersweet experience. It takes me back to another time and place, when the very idea of a Disney park opening up in Europe seemed proof positive that the world was slowly but surely becoming a more magical place. Naturally, nowadays there's a share of sorrow involved too. Not just because of the troubled realities in bringing the park to fruition, and the dream's insistence on becoming a nightmare early on to those who had backed it, but because 1992, the year when the magic was touted to go down, has come and gone and is now almost three decades into the past. It definitely plays like a faded dream, the promise of a brighter tomorrow that, irrespective of whether it actually became reality, inevitably became yesterday too soon.

What always stood out to me as strange about this promo is that Paul, despite ostensibly being the hero of the piece, actually gets a lot less focus throughout than the rest of his family. He mainly just hovers about in the background with that costumed Winnie The Pooh character while his sister gets to meet Snow White and the seven dwarfs and his parents make cuddly observations. Something that I didn't piece together as a child is that the Winnie The Pooh character is presumably supposed to be Paul's own Pooh plush come to "life" into the fantasy - look closely and you'll notice that the plush itself disappears after the first balloon ride and doesn't reappear until we return to Paul's reality. Actually, it strikes me as just as curious that something like that would be regulated to background detail and not be part of the narrative focus.

Also noteworthy is that, as Euro Disney Resort was still under construction at the time this promo was being put together, most of what you see here was actually filmed at Walt Disney World in Florida. The plot may get thicker still, however. I have no way of verifying this, but the YouTube user who uploaded this promo, thingsandtings, speculates in their description that the "real" portions of the advert were filmed at the site of the park's future lakeside hotels...which, if true, would make for a pretty bleak twist in my opinion. For all of the ad's efforts to paint Euro Disney as a mystical paradise - a manifestation of childhood wonder at its most untainted and sincere - those lakeside bookends have a quiet, idyllic charm that stands in direct contrast to the busyness of the park vignettes. Viewed from that perspective, then it's not hard to reinterpret that final line as a threat; the family's days of peaceful picnicking amid the glory of nature are now firmly numbered, as seen in Paul's premonition of impending destruction. Even if it's not the same location, there is still an unintentional subtext to be had in the polarity - the natural splendor of the lake versus the overbearing artificiality of the park, the real ducks seen splashing about the waters at the start of the promo versus the caricatured Disney representations, etc. It seems to me that the family are already have their haven right where they are - one way or another, the arrival of that ominous tourist attraction can only be a disturbance.



And then when the park actually opened, this promo became a common sight on Disney VHS tapes. I think that 1992 may actually have been the last year in which you'd have seen Roger Rabbit displayed so prominently in a Disney parade. His star was already in the process of being snuffed out.

*The idea of an amusement park going bankrupt strikes me as particularly grim, because it instantly calls to mind the game over sequence from the 1994 game Theme Park. I should touch on that some time.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Itchy & Scratchy Land (aka Bort, Retry, Fail?)

Let's take a look at one of the strangest and most ambitious installments in The Simpsons' classic run, "Itchy & Scratchy Land" of Season 6 (2F01), an episode born out of much the same thirst for rebellion as "Treehouse of Horror V", which aired shortly after. As then-showrunner David Mirkin explains on the episode's DVD commentary, it came about at a time when media violence was one of the hot political issues of the day, and tighter regulations were being enforced in an effort to sanitise the airwaves. Fox had recently informed The Simpsons that they could no longer use Itchy and Scratchy, and that any further installments from the cat and mouse would be met with a swift visit from Fox's censorship scissors. Unfazed, the show's creative team called Fox's bluff by concocting an entire episode set around the bloodthirsty antics of Itchy and Scratchy, daring their overlords to whip them into line. Kyle Ryan, reviewing the episode on the AV Club, suggests that Fox's objections were indicative of a fundamental failure on their part to understand the point The Simpsons was looking to make: "the preposterous violence of Itchy and Scratchy satirized cartoon violence—the message behind was clearly concerned about the content of entertainment geared toward impressionable children. In their own way, the Simpsons writers were Helen Lovejoys: “Won’t someone think of the children?!”" Were they, though? Not according to Mirkin himself, whose own words on the DVD commentary are "comedy violence, I think, is therapeutic and not troublesome", before descending into a full-blown rant of the "I was raised on a steady diet of cartoon violence and it didn't turn me into a serial killer" ilk. (I do not disagree with the point Mirkin raises, although I kind of wish he hadn't taken up a third of commentary time in making it, meaning that we don't get to hear anecdotes about the road trip the family takes in the first act, including one of the series' finest and most underrated gags.)

Itchy and Scratchy are two of the longest-standing supporting characters on The Simpsons, having made their first appearance all the way back in the Tracey Ullman era. They are profoundly useful characters, providing an easy analogue by which the series can make self-reflexive gags about itself and the animation industry in general. Their main raison d'ĂȘtre, however, has always been to satirise anxieties surrounding media violence and its hypothetical effect on those who watch it. Their first Ullman short, which opens with Homer complaining that Itchy & Scratchy is too violent and ends with him throttling Bart, points an obvious accusatory finger at the hypocrisies of the family values brigade which painted television as the root cause of familial disarray. The issue was revisited, in greater depth, in the Season 2 episode "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge". There, Marge's crusade against cartoon violence is depicted with more sympathy than was Homer's in the aforementioned Ullman short, while the purveyors of senseless violence, Meyers and his cronies, come across quite unfavourably. It's still evident that the writers are not on her side, however. Overall I think the series backs Mirkin's stance about media violence providing a valuable and healthy outlet for our emotional debris, albeit from a distinctly double-edged angle that also satirises the very nature of that fascination. The Simpsons celebrates the vital role that violent imagery plays in our lives and the well-defined need it meets, all while making no bones about what a perverse and ugly need that frankly is. The Itchy & Scratchy Show might be senseless violence, but its depraved energy in always wanting to push the boundaries of good taste engenders a kind of admiration, even if that admiration is ultimately tempered by the uproarious laughter with which the characters react in-universe. They laugh just a little too loud and hard at the sight of a mouse making mincemeat of a cat. This becomes more salient two or three seasons in, when the series shifted away from the Tom & Jerry model and took to depicting Scratchy as an innocent victim who is butchered by Itchy for no discernible reason. The characters' total indifference toward the plight of this hapless cartoon cat is disconcerting, even if it is all make-believe. I feel that one of the protestors in "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge" raises a sound philosophical point on their signage in positing: "What if they blew up a cat and nobody laughed?"

"Itchy & Scratchy Land" might have been conceived as a gigantic FU to the FCC, but what it ultimately endures as is the most flagrantly (and deliciously) anti-Disney episode the show ever yielded. In this one, The Simpsons really sharpens its claws and goes after The Big D - which, these days, obligates some acknowledgement of the fundamental ironies of life (how much longer until guys in ridiculous Bart Simpson suits are getting kicked in the shins by kids at Disneyland?). It's also pertinent to note that, as the Simpsons universe expanded over the years, so too did the cultural significance of Itchy & Scratchy. Earlier episodes never let on that they were anything other than a crudely conceived and animated junk cartoon that fascinated kids but was generally looked down upon by the adult populace, who wished they could be watching something more constructive (I note that Bob kept Itchy & Scratchy during his brief tenure as top TV clown, even when he revamped everything else, but this may have been a contractual obligation he had no control over). Later, it was established that the characters, and their bloodthirsty antics, had a rich and long-running legacy dating back to the Golden Age of Animation. By the time we reached this particular installment, it was clear that the characters are this universe's equivalent of Mickey Mouse, an institution as powerful and iconic as that of Walt Disney. Such expansion was necessary to satirise other aspects of the animation industry beyond the Simpsons' own televisual turf (although as a side-effect, the larger Itchy & Scratchy grew in magnitude, the greater the suspension of disbelief required that these world-renowned toons would be made in Springfield, of all places). Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie, from the Season 4 episode of the same name, was potentially inspired by the actual Tom and Jerry: The Movie (it predates that film's stateside release by several months, although I'm sure that others in the animation industry were aware of the film's existence at the time the episode was written), but the story seems to have been conceived more as a reaction to the newly-awakened Disney Renaissance, the recent success of Beauty and The Beast having done a lot to restore the commercial and artistic credibility of the animated feature.* Suddenly, the industry was ripe with optimism. Here, the main gag seems to revolve around the absurdity that the prospect of seeing this ridiculous cartoon translated onto the big screen should be hailed as such an earth-shattering cultural milestone. Bart is denied seeing the much-anticipated film as a punitive measure by Homer, and since the viewer sees the episode predominantly from Bart's perspective, we share his frustration at being shut out of the event; at the same time, and for all the plaudits heaped on it by the rest of Springfield, the viewer is plagued by a nagging doubt as to just how good this movie could actually be. Common sense would dictate that a formula as aggressively basic as Itchy & Scratchy's does not lend itself to long-form storytelling. And yet the accolades get all the more ridiculous. The movie receives a novelisation by Norman Mailer, runs for eight months and wins nine Academy Awards. When, in a flash-forward forty years into the future, Bart and the viewer are finally awarded a glimpse of the forbidden feature, it frankly comes as no surprise to see that there is nothing to distinguish it from your common or garden Itchy & Scratchy cartoon (an aged Bart and Homer watch the film in mild bewilderment, and Homer opines that "Itchy's a jerk" as if this has just come as an epiphany to him). In a clever visual gag, we see that, in this inverted universe, the acclaimed Beauty and The Beast has attained only B-movie status, as an extra attached to the main attraction.

By Season 6, Itchy and Scratchy's popularity was gargantuan enough for them to have an entire amusement park constructed in their honor - there, the Disney allusion is finally completed when we learn something of the original creator of Itchy & Scratchy, Roger Meyers Sr, an unsubtle stand-in for Walt Disney. How unsubtle? We're told that Meyers Sr loved almost everybody and that he, in return, was beloved by the world "except in 1938 when he was criticised for his controversial cartoon, Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors." A hilarious gag, and one certain to piss off the Disney aficionado in your life, it does more than just provide a cheeky nod to Walt's alleged (though hotly contested) antisemitism. It suggests that there's a dark underbelly to the purported magic of the Itchy & Scratchy empire - this malaise manifests itself all over the park, but the reference to Roger Meyers Sr's fascist leanings make it especially alarming when, shortly after, Bart is apprehended by a couple of sinister-looking security personnel and hauled off to the Itchy & Scratchy equivalent of Disneyland Jail (that's an actual thing).

This was not the first time that The Simpsons had taken a swipe at Disneyland. Duff Gardens, the shoddy amusement park visited by Bart, Lisa and Selma in the Season 4 episode "Selma's Choice", was ostensibly a parody of Busch Gardens, a park similarly owned by a beer company, but many of the attractions were digs at some of the most iconic features encountered at Disneyland (Small Word ride, Hall of Presidents, Main Street Electrical Parade). There the joke didn't go much further than the park being badly-run and a colossal letdown. Itchy & Scratchy Land, on the other hand, is a whole different level of evil, one that by turns plays like a nightmare vision of a dystopian future, or a glimpse into a twisted parallel reality. So much about the park feels profoundly, eerily wrong, and not just the violent motif that has Marge so repulsed. In the second act a lot of the really troublesome stuff tends to be happening on a more muted level. There's a park executive who seems to be stalking Marge, showing up a little too conveniently every time she expresses her reservations. A disturbingly large percentile of the park's visitors identify to the creepy and unpleasant moniker of "Bort". To say nothing of the horrors Maggie encounters when she's dumped in The Ball Room for the duration of the family's visit. The park is an odd, off-kilter place, one that plainly doesn't adhere to the same reality as the rest of the world. Part of this taps into the paradoxical discomfort brought on by the zealous measures deployed by Disneyland to maintain a strictly controlled environment. George Ritzer has something to say about this in The McDonaldizaton of Society, when he describes the almost utopic qualities of the Disneyland milieu - "Visitors will likely not have their day disrupted by the sight of public drunkenness. Crime in these parks is virtually nonexistent" [although still existent enough to necessitate Disneyland Jail] - before hinting that there may be a hidden price to all this cleanliness:  "Disney offers a world of predictable, almost surreal orderliness." (p.112-13) In the Itchy & Scratchy equivalent, there is a heartless, calculated coldness to the efficiency, one that shows little regard for anything below the most surface level of emotions. This is particularly evident in The Ball Room, where the babies' inactivity is equated with satiation; the daycare staff are oblivious to how much the babies dislike the plastic balls, the physical weight of which renders them unable to play. When Maggie and the other babies finally manage to claw their way to the top of the ball heap, the staff are alarmed, and their go-to response is to bury them under even more balls.

On arrival, the family are transported to the main body of the park by helicopter, where they are assured by the pilot that, "Nothing can possi-blye go wrong." He then insists that his mispronunciation of the word "possibly" is the first thing that's ever gone wrong, something that does little to quell the family's unease. The appearance of the helicopter is a nod to Steven Spielberg's latest action blockbuster Jurassic Park (1993), and at this point it's worth acknowledging that the episode first aired on October 2nd, 1994, making the plot an obvious product of Jurassic Park hype (although it clearly predates Pulp Fiction - there is a wry jab therein at the state of John Travolta's career pre-Pulp). Jurassic Park, of course, was centred around a revolutionary theme park in which specimens from the age of the dinosaur were resurrected and showcased for the amusement of guests, and which offered enormous and very obvious potential for things to go spectacularly wrong. In one of the film's most iconic one-liners, Jeff Goldblum's character contrasts the hazards of the park with the relative orderliness of Disneyland, noting that, "if the Pirates of The Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists." For viewers with Jurassic Park still fresh in their minds, the helicopter scene would have provided a major tip-off as to the nature of what would inevitably to go wrong at Itchy & Scratchy Land, a promise finally fulfilled in the third act when the park's animatronics malfunction and turn against the guests - although the presence of killer robots in place of dinosaurs has the outcome more closely resemble that of the 1973 film Westworld, directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton (the pilot's self-defeating assurance is a variation on a gag used on the Westworld poster, which told us that "Nothing can possibly go worng."). The family are abandoned and forced to fend off armies of renegade robots by being obnoxious tourists and directing the flash on their cameras here, there and everywhere. It's an exciting finale, and one that realises a personal nightmare of series creator Matt Groening, who has spoken about his childhood phobia of robots in numerous venues. But, let's face it, it's a less persuasive nightmare than the one we've already experienced, concerning how the park operates on any given day. The Jurassic Park/Westworld homages, while cute, are neither the backbone of the episode, nor the real anxieties articulated in the verbal flubs of the helicopter pilot. That has more to do with how Disney endeavors to manufacture the perfectly immaculate family day out, in which all of our enjoyment is carefully pre-determined, our every need hotly anticipated, and our desires all aggressively funneled. To an extent, we welcome the surveillance, and the predictability - the last thing we want is for anything nasty or unexpected to happen when we ride Pirates of The Caribbean, after all. But there's something kind of stifling about it too - and still ample room for error, mechanical or human, to worm its way into the most airtight of systems.

Oh, but I've gotten way ahead of things here. At its heart, "Itchy & Scratchy Land" is an episode about the Simpsons taking a family vacation, something we hadn't seen them do since as far back as the Season 1 episode "Call of The Simpsons". Marge, who has a pre-established distaste for the violent antics of Itchy & Scratchy, was hoping for a more peaceful vacation at the Highway 9 Bird Sanctuary (home of a diner-shaped bird feeder, on a really high pole) but is eventually won over by the promise of recipe-related bumper cars. She has some lingering reservations, however, based on her experiences in past vacations. Marge yearns for an ordinary family vacation, instead of one where "we end up in a big fight and we come home more miserable than when we left" (do you want to tell her or shall I?). And, for as wild as the episode gets in its third act, it starts out in a fairly down-to-earth place, and is quite happy to take its time in getting to the main attraction. The family do not arrive at the pivotal location until a third of the way into the episode - before then, we get to experience the drudgery that accompanies any extensive road trip. The mileage the episode gets out this is just as toothsome as the Disney skewering, what with the endless roadblocks, the dull landmarks and the jabbering AM radio. There's a shrewd reminder that it's not just our amusement parks that artfully distort and command our desires - in a wonderful, wonderful gag, Bart and Lisa become increasingly enraptured by a series of billboards advertising their increasing proximity to a Flickey's eatery, for no other reason than that it offers relief from the monotony. When Homer curtly denies them the stop, the kids are immediately greeted by another a billboard, seemingly positioned only to taunt onlookers with the information that they are now 25,000 miles from the next Flickey's (I see what you did there), and that their chance for salvation has passed them by. The power of the sequence lies in the viewer's empathy for Bart and Lisa, their youthful curiosity as to what might lie ahead and their frustration in being utterly at the mercy of parental control. But it's equally hilarious just how much anticipation is built up for the looming eatery through such a hopelessly banal succession of imagery. We feel Bart and Lisa's disappointment whilst being wise to the unlikelihood that they missed out on a one-of-a-kind experience, for Flickey's is almost certainly no different to any other eatery they're bound to encounter along the way. All that the relentless signage does is prey on the need for alleviation from tedium, and in that regard we might see Itchy & Scratchy Land as doing more-or-less the same thing, in convincing consumers of a magical reality lying straight up ahead.

On the surface, the sadistic violence of Itchy & Scratchy would appear to be the very antithesis of the wholesome values and fairy tale fantasies embodied by the Walt Disney brand (although I would note that the "Steamboat Willie" parody from "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" is probably less disturbing to modern sensibilities than the real thing). But they meet much the same end, in offering their clientele the realisation of dreams they were probably unaware they even had until they were packaged and sold to them as the ultimate in wish fulfillment. Sara Raley, in McDonaldization: The Reader, defines Disneyland as "every child's media-generated fantasy" (p.127), which is echoed here in Bart's observation that the hideous robot parade, "is so much like my dreams, it's scary" (the true banality of the experience, meanwhile, is summed up in Homer's proclamation that, "It's the 12:00 robot parade! Hurry up or we'll have to wait for the 12:05 parade!"). Visitors to Itchy & Scratchy Land are pre-conditioned to find their escapism in violent fantasy, and to that end Itchy & Scratchy certainly offers the ultimate in barbarous wish fulfillment. The very premise of the cartoon is one of cruelty without consequence - Marge challenges the executive who insists otherwise with a hilariously pedantic example ("On TV, that mouse pulled out that cat's lungs and played them like a bagpipe, but in the next scene the cat was breathing comfortably!"), but neglects the most obvious, which is that none of Itchy's demented antics have any kind of lasting impact on Scratchy. The cat always comes back, alive and unharmed, and the viewer is not encouraged to have stakes in the outcome of any given episode. The climactic showdown, in which the animatronics direct their homicidal programming at the park's guests, can be seen as the logical progression of this, with a society that revels in simulations of blood and mangling finally having its fantasies made a little too real and turned back on itself. This is a point that Marge puts to Bart and Lisa in the very last scene, in offering the episode's ostensible moral: "I hope you realize now that violence on TV may be funny, but it's not so funny when that violence is happening to you." The sincerity of the message is immediately undermined by Bart's response, "But it would be funny to someone who was watching us," thus tapping on the fourth wall and implicating the show's own audience in the ongoing fascination with violent fantasy. The Simpsons' disastrous visit to Itchy & Scratchy Land was our own joyous escapism, and the episode posits that it is as essential to us as the feel-good fantasies of Disney's happily ever afters.

Of course, for a park founded on the reassurance that nothing can possi-blye go wrong, Itchy & Scratchy Land seems awfully determined to tempt fate, as we see when the family takes a ride on the log flume, a heinously unsafe amalgamation of Splash Mountain and Pirates of The Caribbean that ends with the carriage being severed by a ripsaw and the occupants having to leap out to safety onto a heap of mattresses below. This sequence highlights the other, somewhat incongruous fantasy on which the park has built its public image - the promise of refuge from the realities of family living, aka the one on which Marge has pinned her own emotional investment for the visit - and how this, too, is fated to fall apart. The ride starts out serenely, accompanied by the sounds of a twanging banjo that is obviously designed to replicate that heard at the start of Pirates of The Caribbean, but puts us on edge for how eerily reminiscent it also is of certain details from the movie Deliverance. Marge comments that, "This is just what I was hoping for...spending the day together as a family," and even before the ride suddenly gives way to a stomach-rending drop, there's a falseness to this image of immaculate family bliss, brought on by the crudeness of the ride's cheesy cardboard props, a ludicrously unconvincing realisation of actual imagination. The log ride splits the family down the middle (although not literally, as it so easily could have done), and Marge willfully abandons her visions of family togetherness so that she and Homer can head off to the park's big draw for the adult set, Parents' Island (a play on Disney World's Pleasure Island), in search of a very different kind of escapism - one in which time stands completely still. The attractions of the island are rooted heavily in a nostalgia for the past and a resistance to the realities of time, although there is a small disturbance to this fantasy in the signage of Itchy's 70s Disco, which recreates the 70s down to the smallest detail but advertises itself as being established in 1980. More telling is Marge's exchange with a waiter at T.G.I. McScratchy's, where New Year's Eve is being celebrated in a continuous loop (a nod to an actual practice at Pleasure Island, in which every night was New Year's Eve for fifteen years straight). Marge tells the waiter that, "It must be wonderful to ring in the new year over and over", to which he implores her to kill him. Visitors to T.G.I. McScratchy's want the symbolic promise of the new year - the renewal and the optimism for what might lie ahead - but none of the ramifications of the passage of time, ie: a world that is constantly changing and the unwelcome reminders that they are adding further years to their own lives. The actual horrors of being permanently stranded in such a hollow spectacle are indicated in the plight of the waiter, who, we later learn from the surveillance team in the park's ominous underground quarters, has gone out to the roof of the bar and is threatening to jump. Their words also make it clear that he is not the first employee to be driven to suicidal despair by the monotony of the park's routines. One person's escapist fantasy is another's stifling nightmare.

In spite of everything, by the third act Marge does appear to have come around to the park, for she is seen purchasing t-shirts with the slogan "Best Vacation Ever", although by this point she has shed her emotional baggage in the form of her entire family - Homer has wandered off and is about to cause her a world of embarrassment by harassing a costumed employee and getting dragged to the same detention facility as Bart. Following the robot rampage, Marge is all prepared to condemn the vacation as a write-off, although Bart and Lisa attempt to counter this by pointing out how it met all of her requisites for an ideal family outing - in their battle against the renegade animatronics, the family were brought together and got a lot of exercise outdoors. Ostensibly, Marge agrees, but then immediately goes back on her final requisite, that the family create a lot of happy memories, with her instruction that they never speak of it again (a call-back to something said by Homer earlier on in the episode, when his impromptu shortcut caused the family unspecified grief en route to the park). On a meta level, this might be a reference to the unlikelihood of the episode's events being brought up again in the show's continuity, so Marge knows intuitively that it's easier just to nod her head and move on. Moreover, it refers to the kind of fantasy we willfully indulge in on a day-to-day basis - one where our pain and trauma can be readily consigned to oblivion, so long as we don't acknowledge that they're there.

Some random observations:

  • Among past family vacation embarrassments is a trip to Amish Country, which recreates a scene from Peter Weir's 1985 film Witness. Homer harasses the non-violent Amish by smearing them with ice cream, like the tourists in that film. Here, Harrison Ford isn't around to kick his ass, but an actual ass manages just as well.
  • The short-lived "Itchy & Scratchy & Friends Hour" is often assumed to be a reference to the late 80s/early 90s animated series Garfield and Friends - I suppose because their names are kind of similar and they both involve cartoon cats? I'm not really feeling that connection, however. I suspect that the "Itchy & Scratchy & Friends Hour" was intended more as a nod to the 1980s trend for cartoons featuring cute, non-threatening characters designed with their greeting card potential most in mind (which makes the inclusion of a character named Ku Klux Klam all the more disturbingly inappropriate). Garfield and Friends itself was one of the early shows to consciously move away from this trend - Mark Evanier, who wrote for the series, has been very outspoken in his criticisms of what he calls the "pro-social" cartoons of the 1980s, which he (not inaccurately) saw as promoting conformity, and in Garfield he took the opportunity to extend his middle finger through a trio of characters known as the Buddy Bears, who emphasised group harmony and explicitly discouraged independent thinking. The Simpsons, in their early days, had taken their own potshot at such cartoons with The Happy Little Elves, characters which, as I noted in my coverage of "Some Enchanted Evening", the show largely stepped away from as the trend dissipated and the satire became less relevant. Elsewhere in the animation industry, however, it seems that a number of other writers still had a lot of anger in their system for these pro-social pricks, hence the utterly savage eviscerations we continued to get well into the 90s through shows like Garfield and Friends and Rugrats.
  • Ku Klux Klam himself, meanwhile, might be an additional reference to the reputed racism of Walt Disney. I notice that the character is positioned beneath an unnamed bear resembling Br'er Bear from Song of The South. Subliminal mise-en-scene?  
  • For all of Groening's musings about how being cornered by a homicidal robot would be the most terrifying thing ever, the most disturbing aspect of the final showdown comes not from the mindlessness of machinery, but the vindictiveness of humanity. The family finds possible rescue on an emergency helicopter, but are denied entry by costumed employee, who recognises Bart as the one who harassed him earlier and boots him off, yelling, "When you get to Hell, tell 'em Itchy sent you!" Another reminder that acts of violence entail consequences, although the employee's retribution seems somewhat...disproportionate - given that it involves kicking a ten-year-old and abandoning a family to their presumed deaths. I would say "what the hell, Itchy?", but come to think of it that's pretty much the entire basis of Itchy's character. Itchy's a jerk.

* Of course, it may also have represented wish fulfillment following The Simpsons' own recent failure to get a movie off of the ground. Consideration was at one point given to expanding the plot of "Kamp Krusty" to feature length, but it didn't work out.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

No Idea (Earth Leakage Trip)

The Prodigy might have traversed some subversive territory with their 1991 hit "Charly", but there were freakier combatants still who threw their hats into the Toytown Techno arena. "No Idea", a hypnotically unnerving concoction by electronic duo Earth Leakage Trip (real names Tony Lobue and Neil Sandford), encompasses many of the same themes as "Charly" - mind-altering substances, children in peril, an ironic wariness of adult authority - all while taking an artifact from 1970s childhood and teasing out the sinister undertones that were lurking there along. Most of the dialogue heard throughout comes from Happy Monsters, a quirky children's record from 1975, which tells the story of two stray kids, Bobby and Betty, who take a wrong turn in the woods and end up in The Land of Ooog, a fantastical realm populated by monsters with an affinity for well-behaved children and a passion for funk music. Ooog shares many of the same features of our world, but everything has been tweaked and rearranged, evoking a world that seems eerily distorted and operates on an entirely different logic to our own - hence the track's most prominent sample, concerning Bobby's observations on Ooogian architecture: "The doors are where the windows should be...and the windows are where the doors should be..." In "No Idea", the sample has been slowed down, making the voice seem noticeably older but also as though the speaker is surveying their surroundings with the stupefied fascination brought on by a drug-induced high. In the original recording, Bobby utters this phrase just once, but here it is repeated over and over, creating the sensation that Bobby is trapped in a single looping moment, spiraling along a dizzying infinity of misplaced doors and windows. The sample dominates the track, and the effect is disconcerting. For what could be a more mundane, and yet more threatening subversion of the established order than a house where the doors and the windows are in the wrong place?

As was the basis of Toytown Techno, "No Idea" is all about evoking a kind of long-lost childhood euphoria, rendered accessible once again by the pleasures of the rave scene. That euphoria is, however, disturbed by the intermittent cries of Heather O'Rourke, who can be heard shrieking, "I can't hear you, mommy!", at various points throughout the track - this sample comes from the 1982 movie Poltergeist, a story of another child abducted by otherworldly beings. Its juxtaposition with the Happy Monsters sample is a sly reference to the potentially darker implications of Bobby and Betty's mind-bending excursion. On the album sleeve, Happy Monsters promises "a pleasant adventure into the impossible Land of Ooog", where "only good children can visit and talk with the happy monsters." The adventure is certainly a pleasant one, for nothing overtly menacing happens to Bobby and Betty in Ooog, but there is a more troubling subtext to be gleaned, in that it concerns a couple of lost children who, for all we know, never find their way home. The narrative, which occupies the entirety of Side A, amounts to something of a shaggy dog story, an extended build-up to a punchline in which the listener is instructed to turn over the record to hear the concert the monsters have promised to perform before their human guests. The problem facing Bobby and Betty at the start of the record - how to navigate back to their family's farm in an approaching storm - is left dangling. Meanwhile, Bobby's concluding observation that, "Even if it's not for real, it's such a happy place here," is a jarring reminder that Ooog apparently exists only in fantasy, making us question what, exactly, is happening in the "real" world. Are the children stranded in the woods and hallucinating from the hunger Bobby professes to feel at the start of the recording? Is this all escapism in order to avoid having to face up to the frightening reality of their situation? It seems that every little extra dash of whimsy in Ooog adds further apprehension to the mix.

The vocals heard at the start of "No Idea" are those of The Interpreter, a disembodied voice who directs Bobby and Betty around The Land of Ooog, but refuses to make itself visible on the basis that "Things are not always as we see them." It assures us that since we are "good children", the monsters who inhabit The Land of Ooog have looked forward to our "make believe visit". Already we can see a kind of subversion along the lines of that conveyed in The Prodigy's "Charly", for the rebellious ravers tripping along to Bobby's doors-and-windows fixation would likely not have regarded themselves as "good" children who were keen to follow the rules, while the specification that the visit to Ooog is only "make believe" is suggestive both of a parallelism between childhood fantasy and drug-induced hallucination and of the deceptive, potentially dangerous world we are traversing. There is a sinister ambience to Ooog that seems at odds with the values ostensibly being preached. Throughout Happy Monsters, there is repeated emphasis on the supposed condition that Ooog is accessible only through virtue - The Interpreter insists that Bobby and Betty must be "good" children, or else they would not have come there -  although what constitutes a "good" child is never expounded on. The closest we get is The Interpreter's presumption that Bobby and Betty would have done their homework and "studied [their] XYZs", suggesting that it has to do with a basic adherence to adult authority. And really, we have to take The Interpreter's word for it, because Bobby and Betty are never called upon to demonstrate their virtue, nor is their entry to Ooog precipitated by any kind of moral choice. They certainly seem like nice enough children, but we learn effectively nothing about them. Also not explained is why the monsters are so eager to meet with Bobby and Betty in the first place, a question explicitly put to The Interpreter by Betty that it seems to purposely duck out of answering. The story's apparent attempt to offer up some kind of moral teaching - "Every place is happy when children are good" - is so vague as to hardly seem sincere. The paradox of Happy Monsters is that, for all of its insistence on being "good" and following the rules, it is a story that revels in embracing the strange and subverting the established order, hence those spooky Ooogian houses with the doors and the windows in the wrong places. The Land of Ooog is both threatening and seductive because it does not obey the rules, the story engaging for the beguiling manner in which it explores the allure of the strange and the unknown, even if it is a fascination that goes against whatever parental authority (and Charley The Cat) might have told us. And, in order to reach this land, professedly open only to the obedient, the children have had to leave parental authority behind.

The implications of the Poltergeist sample are similarly two-fold. O'Rourke's voice, like that of The Interpreter, is disembodied, deriving from a scene in which her character, Carol Freeling, is calling out to her parents from another dimension (in a manner strongly reminiscent of the Twilight Zone episode "Little Girl Lost"). Her passage to the other side is facilitated by her family's subservience to a very different authority - that of the chattering cyclops. Poltergeist is a film that speaks to parental concerns about the increasing dominance of television, that ultimate source of mind-warping stupefaction, within the family home, and the possibility that it could supplant adult authority, should the parents be negligent enough to delegate their own responsibilities to the blinking light box. The television, ostensibly, is safe and domestic, but it offers a portal through which outside forces are invited to freely pervade the family home, and through which the child's soul, if they stare into it too long, could potentially be lost. The preoccupation, once again, is with the allure of the strange and unknown over the safe and familiar, and the horror and exhilaration this engenders. O'Rourke's cries emphasise a wedge between parent and child that is certainly disturbing (reminding us of the fate that might possibly have befallen Bobby and Betty), although her repeated insistence that she can no longer hear her mother is equally suggestive of a kind of gleeful liberation from parental control. These are renegade children who've left their comfort zone behind. Whether they'll be alright in their new environs remains up in the air, and that delicious uncertainty is to be savoured.

 There are gulls heard all throughout the track too, but I can't explain what those are all about.