Sunday, 22 March 2020
The Peugeot 406 Shark, in all his child-chomping glory, might have proved a notch too alarming for some viewers, but the peril he created seemed utterly conventional compared to the stars of the following campaign. For one thing, that shark at least remained in his natural habitat (maybe - just where in the world was that seaside resort supposed to be, anyway?). A far more nightmarish scenario would be if you were unwinding in the privacy of your own bathtub when suddenly an electric eel came slithering down the water pipes to make your acquaintance - which is exactly the scenario to which KP wished to liken the experience of ingesting their new snack foods product, Hula Hoops Shoks, in the early 2000s. The big hook of Shoks is that they had stronger, more intense flavours than regular Hula Hoops, and the tongue-in-cheek message of this campaign was that the only experience on Earth that could possibly prepare you for the sensation of applying a Shok to your taste buds is a close encounter with a live electric eel. Hence, the premise that Hula Hoops were releasing thousands of electric eels into the UK's waterworks as part of an ambitious publicity stunt. Cue eye-popping images of the elongated fishes slithering taps and sinkholes into kitchens and bathrooms and coming face-to-face with unsuspecting Brits as they went about their unsuspecting domestic routine. The whole thing sounds absurd as hell, and yes it was, but KP's twisted sense of humour landed them in slightly hot water when scores of parents wrote to the Independent Television Commission to complain about the effects these surreal images were having on their children.
Before we go into that, though, I want to point out that the creatures featured in this campaign are not actually electric eels. Electric eels, which are native to South America, are massive bruisers with beady blue eyes (also not a true species of eel, but rather a knifefish). If you found one of those in your bathroom then it would be a whole different level of horror. The eels seen here are harmless anguillids with shock effects added on through simple movie magic. That's probably not something that most people would appreciate creeping down their faucet regardless, but I wanted to bring it up.
So then, the controversy. This campaign upset a lot of people, many of them small children, who were so terrified at the thought of encountering an electric eel in their bathrooms that they developed an aversion to going in there altogether, in some cases leading to bed-wetting. According to this BBC article, the ads attracted 133 complaints. It's easy to scoff, but if I were a young child of five or six and I was exposed to these adverts, then I suspect I might still be impressionable enough to wonder whether or not it was real. The voice-over describing Hula Hoops' supposed stunt probably did sound appropriately authoritative to a child, no matter how ridiculous the notion. So I am sympathetic to the ITC's ruling that the ad should not be shown before 19:00, when there was a higher chance that small children might see it. Although not all of the people who objected to the campaign did so on behalf of small children - I seem to recall reading about the variety of responses to the ads on the defunct Ofcom archive many years back, and some viewers apparently complained on the grounds that they had a phobia of eels. It shouldn't surprise me to learn that enough people would squirm at the mere sight of an eel, given that they do bear a passing resemblance to snakes, and ophidiophobia is one of the commonest phobias out there. Still, if personal phobias were considered legitimate grounds for complaints, then I wonder how far I would get complaining about any ad in which I see someone sporting a bikini or a midriff (have I ever mentioned how repulsed I am by the sight of belly buttons?).
Not everyone who complained did so out of a distaste for the eels, however. Some, by contrast, felt only compassion for the featured fish. This Marketing Week article states that some viewers expressed concern about the welfare of the eels used in the campaign. That would be a legitimate concern, but it honestly never crossed my mind that any of the eels involved were harmed, as I suspect that the eels seen being dumped out of buckets and bulldozers weren't actually living. In the second ad in the campaign, we see a man handling an eel before flushing it back down the toilet, and that's definitely a dead eel he's holding. A live one would not be so inert.
As controversial as the campaign was, you'll notice that in the aforementioned BBC article the whole thing was basically upstaged by a ruling made at a similar time by the ITC regarding a campaign for Pot Noodle, in which the cheap and malodorous instant noodles self-described as "the slag of all snacks", and netted twice as much contention. The BBC article reports that that particular campaign received over 300 complaints (the Marketing Week article cites only 63, but there is a two-month gag between the two). Pot Noodle ended up having to change their slogan altogether when the word "slag" was deemed too offensive for TV at any time; the eels at least got to play around in the twilight slot.
Looking at the Shoks campaign beyond the context of the controversy, there is something terribly upsetting about these ads which I think has less to do with the surreal imagery of eels invading our bathrooms than with the overall sense of grimy desolation that pervades them. The mixture of the mundane and the absurd and the retro 1970s aesthetic make it seem like the kind of beguilingly warped gag you might have encountered in the BBC comedy series Look Around You (only less wry and more grotesque in nature), and like that series it conveys an unease about our collective cultural heritage and how it led us to the then-present. The initial ad in the campaign shows an elderly woman having an eel drop in on her in her tower block abode, and the situation is disturbing because it captures something of the corrupted journey of the UK's tower block boom; once a promise of the utopian future for post-war Britain, which envisioned people being brought out of the squalor of the slums and into the beauty of the skies, they wound up becoming dystopian nightmares unto themselves - imposing, monstrous symbols of degradation and isolation. With that in mind, I can accept the eel as a metaphor for the cold, creeping feeling alienation coming to engulf you within the supposed safety your own home, where all hope has gone down the plughole, and all that's left is the serpentine form of despair and squander staring you right in the face. Tonally, it might have been a bit bleak for the selling of snack foods.
Ads from this campaign are currently not available on YouTube (I guess they bring back too many bad memories), so to see them you'll have to go over to ad forum.
Thursday, 19 March 2020
In 1999, French car manufacturers Peugeot got the latest spot for their 406 model off to an unsettling start by getting up close and personal with the murky, pointy form of a shark challenging us either to "Run or Fight", "Stand or Fall". This was the third in a trilogy of ads spanning the latter half of the decade for the 406. The first and probably the most famous was "Drive of Your Life" from 1995, which featured, among other things, a man rescuing a small girl from being flattened by a tanker truck, all to the upbeat pop sounds of M People's "Search For The Hero" (it was a strange ad, in that it was very blatantly influenced by the movie Don't Look Now - why else would they have decked the girl out in such a conspicuous red coat? - which makes the celebratory tone seem devilishly incongruous). It opened by asserting that the average person has 12,367 thoughts a day (admit it, though, you made that oddly specific statistic up on the spot), before assuring us that "There is no such thing as an average person". This ad can be seen as a spiritual successor to "Drive of Your Life", not least because it shared the same fixation with images of children in peril (the second ad, featuring Hollywood A-lister Kim Basinger, doesn't quite fit the mold, although it did continue to accentuate the theme of individuality, with the opening proclamation that "We are each as individual as our dreams"). This one is more haunting in tone than "Drive of Your Life", but it follows much the same formula, with various evocative images of human interaction accompanied by a rousing pop tune - in this case "True Colors", originally a hit in 1986 for Cyndi Lauper, here performed by Dominique Moore - while the hero of the piece expresses his singularity by breezing through the streets in a Peugeot 406. It received less fanfare than "Drive of Your Life", though it seems to have resonated with people - do a google search and you'll see that there are numerous sites and forums asking about an ad in which two kids go swimming and are attacked by a shark to the sounds of "True Colors".
If "Drive of Your Life" was a bizarrely feel-good take on Don't Look Now, then this ad (I don't know its official name, so we'll just call it "True Colors") plays like a feel-melancholic take on Jaws. Compared to "Drive of Your Life", the central scenario is presented a lot more starkly, with emphasis on just how exposed and vulnerable those children are as they go too far out and get their first real taste of the cold, dark depths of the world (and as the shark gets a taste of the boy's waist). The shark, of course, is a much-maligned creature and its representation in this particular ad would have done little to repair the damage that the aforementioned Spielberg film did for its public image, but it works as a shorthand for the unanticipated danger looming on the horizon for these carefree kids. This ad is about the loss of childhood innocence (the fact that the children start out at an innocuous-looking seaside resort reinforces this), but the discovery of something every bit as valuable; the children go out to sea and they return safely after their shark encounter, but they are not the same individuals as when they left, having discovered hidden depths within themselves.
There is an overarching story regarding the kids and the shark, which builds to an affecting pay-off at the end, but we also get a lot of extraneous "filler" imagery mixed in with it. These fit in with the broader themes of sacrifice and sensitivity, but unlike "Drive of Your Life", which explicitly set itself up as mimicking a stream of consciousness, "True Colors" doesn't really justify why it keeps cutting away from the main action to bring us all these additional sequences. Some of them, such as the businessman who goes barefoot in the rain after gifting his shoes to a homeless man, and the tough guy who loves his kitty, are evocative in themselves, but since "True Colors" is overall more narrative-driven than was "Drive of Your Life", it's easier to see them as just that; evocative images for evocative images' sake, added in chiefly to give the ad a bit more visual variety. The one which does baffle me slightly is the sequence in which a bride punches a reluctant groom who decides at the altar not to go through with their marriage, which follows more of a slapstick bent than the others (its - intentional? - resemblance to the final scenario in Four Weddings and a Funeral doesn't help in that regard) and I'm not sure how it fits in with the overall theme, unless it's simply that the people in question are being open about their feelings. It all helps to pad out the ad, until we get to the grand finale in which the driver of the car is revealed to be the boy bitten by the shark, now grown up and headed back to the same seaside resort to reunite with the girl. At the end, he takes off his shirt, revealing the gaping scar across his torso. That they're still together at the same resort implies that they still very much inhabit that distant childhood moment, the traumatic incident where everything changed, but ultimately defined them and solidified their connection. The implicit message of the "True Colors" theming, I suppose, is that the man's ostensibly hideous scar is actually a badge of honor, an emblem of the tremendous chivalry within (much like his hideous car?)
Still, according to at least one article I've found online (and I have been able to find precious little information about the actual making of the ad), "True Colors" did not pass without its share of controversy, with no less than fifty viewers making their discontentment known to the Independent Television Commission. Some apparently thought the man's scar was revolting and that he should have kept it concealed in the spirit of tasteful teatime viewing, but it seems that most of the complaints took issue with the broader issue of the ad focusing so extensively on a scenario in which children are in grave danger (they are very clearly shown to have survived and it's not as if the attack itself is at all graphic, although I suppose there were always going to be some who would find the mere concept distressing). According to the article, the ITC would have proceeded with an investigation into the advert to see if it broke any broadcast rules, but I have found no information of the outcome (it's too bad that old Ofcom archive appears to have been liquidated), although it does lead into a small mystery, as I do remember there being two versions of the ad - the longer version (above) from 1999, and a shorter version (below) which did the rounds the following year. The short version cuts down on some of the extraneous material (the handcuffed drink pass is completely excised), but the more curious alteration was the absence of the sequence in which the boy and the girl are seen returning triumphantly to land - instead, we get a repeat of the moment in which the boy is seen to shield the girl from the shark. Was that in response to the complaints, I wonder? If so, I'd find it a bit odd if this was considered the "gentler" of the two, as we're denied the additional comfort of actually seeing the children get back to safety, even if it's still made clear that they do. It can't surely have had anything to do with the boys' torso, and any visible injuries he might have sported, for as he limps back to shore in the original ad there's not really any conspicuous trace of mangled flesh and blood hanging off him (as would presumably have been the case if he'd endured an actual shark bite). Maybe it was just to make it clearer that the kids in the attack and the adults at the end were one and the same (for the benefit of those viewers who didn't pick up on this the first time round)? Regardless, in this version, the kids are left dangling there amid the dark waters, which potentially changes how we might perceive them in the present; no longer triumphant survivors who made it back in (almost) one piece, but drifters who are still emotionally lost in the big wide world, clinging to one another in an effort to stay afloat. This ending is a notch more troubling.
(Sorry, you'll have to go to YouTube for this one.)
So yes, Run or Fight Shark did a small bit of boat rocking within his time, although not as much as the next campaign I'll be examining, which likewise featured some fiendish fishes. Making viewers cautious to go into the ocean is one thing - this campaign made kids too terrified to go into their bathrooms.
Monday, 16 March 2020
"The War of The Simpsons" wasn't the only occasion where Homer was willing to risk everything in a battle of nerves involving an unusual fish. Slightly earlier that same season, in episode 7F11, "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish", Homer found himself potentially at death's door after dining on ill-prepared fugu at a sushi restaurant. (In fact, there are no less than three episodes in Season 2 where a strange fish plays a significant role, when we also factor in "Two Cars In Every Garage, Three Eyes On Every Fish" - something in the water in 1990/91?) Advised by Dr Hibbert that he has less than twenty-four hours to live, Homer vows to make the most of his last day of life and compiles a bucket list of things he wants to accomplish before the sun is down and his internal organs throw in the towel. (Side-note: Fugu is an actual delicacy in Japanese cuisine, although it can only be legally prepared in Japan (and many other countries) by a specially licensed chef; as a result, most cases of poisoning have tended to be from amateurs who caught and prepared their own puffer. So the good news is that your chances of ingesting the poison are extremely slim if consumed on licensed premises. The bad news is that, if you should find yourself lethally poisoned, then you would probably be dead in considerably less than twenty-four hours, and odds are that you'd also be in too much pain to get terribly far into a bucket list. Hibbert's prognosis about the heart exploding is obviously hooey - actual blowfish-induced poisoning would result in paralysis and eventual death from respiratory failure.)
"One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish" is another of those episodes that never clung especially tightly to my radar as a child, but I've come to appreciate a whole lot more with every passing year I've added to my life. It is, without a doubt, one of the most quietly touching, meditative and profound the series has ever yielded. I was thinking about this recently, when a Twitter account dedicated to Simpsons reviews gave this episode a low rating (a measly two doughnuts out of a possible five), suggesting that conceptually the episode fails because we know that Homer's going to survive this, so there's no dramatic tension. But, honestly, was that really the purpose of this episode? Did the production team genuinely believe that they could trick any of the viewers who tuned in for the episode's original broadcast back on January 24th 1991 into thinking that they just might kill off one of their principal characters eleven episodes into the season? I think it's a given that we always know that, come what may, our central family are going to pull through. One of the tenets of sitcomdom is that order must ultimately be restored within thirty minutes. Hence, Sideshow Bob cannot kill Bart (except in a Halloween episode, where the rules are slightly different), Homer and Marge cannot run off with whichever Home-Wrecker comes their way, and Maggie can never become particularly well-developed on the vernacular front. "Blowfish" is ostensibly about Homer having to face up to the inevitable a lot earlier than he'd anticipated after eating a life-threatening menu item, but at its core there's a deeper and far more universal concern, which has to do with Homer becoming seriously aware, for the first time in his life, of his own mortality. This is an episode that pits Homer against the clock; time is the antagonist throughout, and it's not an enemy that can actually be defeated. Rather, all Homer can do is to learn how best to live with it. And that's what makes the scenario so relatable. Most of us haven't ingested toxic pufferfish, but all of us must, at some point, contend with our own mortality, the realisation that our time on Earth is limited, and that all of those plans and dreams we intended to fulfill are getting hopelessly lost in the shuffle. The headlining blowfish is itself a minor detail, something to get the main story into motion and to enable a George Takei guest appearance and a few gags at the expense of the sushi restaurants that were a lot more of a novelty at the dawn of the 1990s - this is about Homer realising that, one way or another, time is running out. "Blowfish" succeeds, not because Homer is doing to die, but because we all are. (And yes, I realise that it's a mighty unfortunate time to be making that particular statement, but I digress.)
The opening scene establishes the theme of the episode through very subtle means. From the beginning, there is emphasis on time, only at this stage Homer finds himself at odds with it because it does not move along quickly enough - he's frustrated that Marge's microwaved meatloaf isn't cooking any faster. At the same scene, Lisa evokes the inevitability of death when she laments, "From cradle to grave, etched in stone, in God's library somewhere..." And there is a lot of emphasis on clocks throughout the episode - the bedside alarm clock, the clock at the police station, the "Time For Another Duff" clock at Moe's. Homer's crisis forces him to contemplate time from all angles - the loose threads from his past that are still dangling, the present that he has never truly made the most of, and the world that will continue after he's gone. At the end of the episode, Homer dedicates the supposed last hours of his life to stepping back and contemplating his existence within a much greater, more cosmic scale - that is, the fullness of time itself - when he listens to The Bible on cassette tape, as read by Larry King.
Despite the magnitude of the problem facing Homer, "Blowfish" is one of the more subdued and reflective episodes of the series; the middle act in particular pivots around exploring his relationship with each individual family member in micro-vignettes, as he tries to give each of them the most meaningful-possible send-off (while not letting on to the reality of the situation). And this is certainly the kind of episode that could have only made during the show's earliest seasons - it's hard to imagine today's Homer, or even Homer circa Seasons 5-8, compiling such a modest bucket list that largely has to do spending time with his family, ensuring that he ends things on a positive note and leaves behind a sturdy legacy (nowadays he would probably prefer to harass various celebrities or something). Homer has very few axes to grind at the end of it all. The only item on his list that betrays any kind of anger or resentment at the hand life has dealt him is his note to find time during the day to really stick it to Mr Burns; the only item that shows any sign of deep personal sorrow and regret is his note to make peace with Abe. He goes about using much of the day constructively, priming Bart to be his successor ("After me, you're the man around the house"), taking time to appreciate Lisa's sax-playing talents, which up until now he had always dismissed as an "infernal racket" and making a videotape in an effort to communicate with Maggie's future grown-up self from beyond the grave.
Still, the day does not exactly work out as planned. Inevitably, time slips away at a much faster rate than Homer can keep atop of, and several items on the list have to be jettisoned as Homer is forced to narrow down his real priorities. He gets a massive setback at the beginning of the day, when Marge (who at this point is the only character to share the burden of Homer's knowledge) offers her own item for Homer's list and suggests that they get up early and watch the sunrise together. Come 6:00am, however, when the alarm clock sounds its blaring intrusion and attempts to snap Homer back into the reality of his impending demise, he unconsciously reaches over and smashes the snooze button, just as he'd do on any other Saturday, and ends up sleeping in to 11:29 and losing the entire morning. In thinking he can silence the clock by putting off contemplating the matter of his looming mortality, and attempting, literally, to sleep on it, he awakens to find it looming all the more oppressively. There's the implication that Homer and Marge could have taken the opportunity to watch the sunrise together on any morning of their married lives up until now, but that the opportunity was always passed up because come each morning they were simply too apathetic.
For various reasons, Homer continues to lose out on time as the day progresses. After that fairly sedate middle act, we once again feel the force of the clock ticking when his efforts to bury the hatchet with Abe results in Abe suddenly wanting to make up for lost time that Homer no longer has. They end up having to cram the relationship they never took the time to develop into a single afternoon, at the expense of the time Homer had allocated for other personal ambitions such as going hang gliding and planting a tree. It looks, on the surface, if Homer is paying the price for his magnanimity, but there's also the insinuation, as he finally breaks away from Abe, that Homer is only now having to face the consequences for numerous years worth of misspent time. He observes that Abe is "a little love-stared", seemingly not grasping the insight that he would not be facing this problem if he had not waited until the last minute to reach out to his father. A further act of ill-judgement also costs him dearly, when he finds himself being booked for speeding and has to call on his friend Barney to bail him out. Nathan Rabin, in his review on The AV Club, is critical of the episode's third act for taking what he calls "a pointless detour...the only real benefit to this subplot was that it afforded us a sadly funny glimpse into the sordid sad sack existence of Barney." I, however, disagree. Not only does it up the tension in the final act, but it's also an example of an unforeseen occurrence throwing Homer's plans into disarray (as with life in general, there's an awful lot that happens that you don't see coming, and it can really throw a wrench into whatever ambitions you planned on fulfilling - take 2020 so far, for example; as this month began, I wasn't exactly anticipating that we'd all be cooped up indoors by the middle of it). Its primary function is to get that inaudible clock ticking even louder. As the night sets in, Homer admits to Barney that there was an awful lot that he intended to do that day that he simply didn't have time for, a simple, matter-of-fact statement that rings sadly profound, in how it alludes to the various unfilled dreams and ambitions we will inevitably have to rule out over the course of a whole lifetime. "Blowfish" is in effect about Homer attempting to live his whole life in a single day, and experiencing the highs and the lows, and all of the stuff that simply gets lost in between.
Although Homer has already abandoned plans to have one last drink with his boozing companions at Moe's Tavern, Barney manages to twist his elbow into going after all, although it comes at the expense of the closing window of opportunity for spending his final evening on Earth with his family (again there is the insinuation that, even on his prospective last day, Homer is unable to break the cycle of misspent time by which he's lived up until now). As with "Homer's Night Out", there's a deliberate contrast between the cleanliness of the family home and the squalidness of life beyond the bounds of the family unit (we get another fleeting window into perpetual bachelor Barney Gumble's unsanitary domestic terrain), and the two are depicted as being perpetually at odds with one another (Moe and Barney mock Homer for feeling the pressure to contact Marge). And yet Homer ends up extending those very feelings of familial warmth to the greasy clientele at Moe's Tavern, whom he addresses with a farewell speech that seems reminiscent of how a parent would talk lovingly to their child: "Sometimes, when I'm at work, I think of you and smile". It's a double-edged moment, at once sweet and sincere and also slightly perverse, once we realise that he is effectively addressing them in lieu of his actual family, who are waiting at home for the final dinner that will not be happening (in one sense, he does get to accomplish his goal of having one last dinner with his family, only it's a liquid dinner and the family in question are the barflies he's long been inclined to hang out with in order to avoid the responsibilities of home). He does, however, remain committed to fulfilling the last item on his list - to be "intimat" with Marge - to the extent that he's forced to leg it back home in the style of Dustin Hoffman's character from The Graduate.
Homer makes it back, and as he and Marge share their last tender moments in the bedroom we switch to more serene indicator of time, in the brilliant moon in the night sky. Homer then slips away from Marge, bids his farewells to each of his children as they sleep, and then retires to an armchair in the living room with a cassette walkman loaded with Larry King reading aloud the Good Book. Homer's impending demise might have put him in an unusually spiritual mood, although the silent stoicism with which he attends (and occasionally fast forwards) King's readings suggests that his main intention is to obtain solace by contextualising his own existence within the broader being of the universe. Homer decides to close things out with the reminder that his life was only a minuscule part of something much larger, a tiny speak in a vast cosmos that stretches beyond all comprehension. In a sly subversion, however, this ends up accentuating the immensity of the events we have just witnessed, so that the entire cycle of creation and destruction (or at least God threatening to smite the Earth with a curse) ends up becoming a tiny footnote to Homer's most important and most apocalyptic of days. Of course, it's also an excuse to throw in a few digs at the expense of books on tape (which, as per the DVD commentary, were also something of a novelty at the time), and King gives a hilariously irreverent sign-off ("I love the San Antonio Spurs, by the way, if you're betting in the NBA this year...") that nevertheless feels genuinely chilling, for how his abrupt, mid-sentence departure coincides with Homer's sudden collapse. The universe ends, both on King's tape and in Homer's living room, with neither a bang nor a whimper but with the mellow sound of horn music murmuring out innocuously as the sun rises over a white-bread suburbia.
But of course, Homer is alive. This much does not come as a surprise to us. Marge treads downstairs the following morning and finds Homer in an inert but drooling state, a sure indicator that his body has not yet given up on life. As she rouses Homer from his sleep with the triumphant declaration that he is alive, Homer does not at first process what she is saying - again, he responds much as he would on any other morning, with half-awake bewilderment, but when it finally does seek in, he bellows out the news of his vitality with the full-hearted enthusiasm of someone who is only now, for the very first time, coming to understand what it truly means to be alive. On the DVD commentary, the production team joke that the ending is, when you strip it right back, a pretty flagrant case of cheating, as it offers no explanation for its final outcome. We spend the episode continuously hearing that Homer is going to die, and then by the miracle of plot convenience he's still standing by the fade-out. I have to admit, though, that I don't get terribly hung up on this point. I suppose it's enough to assume that there was always a slim chance he could survive the fish's toxins and he simply beat the odds - although, irrespective, it's also something of a cheat that Homer never at any point shows any symptoms of ill or threatened health. But none of that is too important, for the episode speaks to us on a far deeper level. Homer has come to the realisation that each new day is a gift in itself, and it is his awareness of his own morality that has afforded him this wisdom. It's a conclusion that recalls the Buddhist proverb, "Every morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most." Obviously, Homer is still going to die eventually, as are all of us. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe not for many years from now. For now, though, we are still here, and have another opportunity to get started on whatever it was that that we were unable to get around to yesterday - and that in itself, the episode posits, is something worth celebrating.
It is a powerful ending, allowing Homer the exultant dignity of his survival and his renewed perspective on life, before subtly undercutting it all with one final joke suggesting that Homer was, ultimately, unable to put his new insight into practice and that, as time became less of a commodity to him, he sunk right back into his groove of living out each day in the same listless fashion as he did before. An end-credits sequence shows Homer seated on his coach, munching on pork rinds while watching a televised bowling tournament, having numbed himself to the sounds of that clock, which continues to tick away at the same rate it did before. "Blowfish" is, in the end, a punchline episode, and it ends up appearing that the entire experience has existed purely in service of this one closing gag. What's interesting, though, is that the punchline it ends with is completely different to the punchline that was initially planned - and, what's more, you can still see the seeds for the original punchline being sown conspicuously all throughout the episode. For an episode that's all about the tying up of loose ends, there are a number of threads that are just left hanging. Homer's bucket list includes no acknowledgement, positive or negative, of neighbour Ned Flanders, although their paths end up crossing anyway on Homer's prospective last day on Earth. When Ned invites Homer to a BBQ he's hosting the following day, Homer's pettiness gets the best of him, and he's compelled to exploit his tragic circumstances as a means of inconveniencing the neighbour who never wished anything but the best for him. We likewise don't see how things work out with regard to Abe, or to Burns, who doesn't escape an unmannerly heckling on Homer's last day, but only because Homer had the good (or possibly ill?) fortune of spotting him in public on his drive to Moe's Tavern. On the DVD commentary writer Nell Scovell explains that the script originally had an epilogue with Homer having to deal with the consequences of those aforementioned actions. We find him slaving away over a BBQ, grudgingly having to make good on his promise to Ned, as he faces a hounding from Abe, who now wants to spend his every waking moment with him, AND an angry telephone call from Burns, who wants to see him in his office on Monday. Marge approaches Homer and asks him if he is not happy just to be alive, to which an exasperated Homer offers no response. It's a logical punchline, albeit much more openly sour in tone, but the punchline they went with was undoubtedly the more affecting of the two. And it seems that we have time itself to thank for that - according to Scovell, the epilogue was cut simply because the episode was at risk of overrunning. And in the end, those loose ends are all the better for being left dangling. In the scheme of things, none of them are very important, for we know exactly how each of them will play out anyhow - being the good neighbour that he is, Ned will forgive Homer, Abe and Homer will continue to have their ups and downs and Burns will, in all odds, have forgotten who Homer is by Monday morning. We are content for Homer's lingering troubles to quietly fade into obscurity, as Homer becomes one with infinity, gazing passively at that bowling tournament as if he has all the time in the world.
Oh wow, remember the days when we could actually go outside for things like brunch and bowling? The irony is that, at this current time of writing, Homer's tactic of staying at home, isolating himself on the couch and living off foods with a high shelf-life is a solid strategy for survival. Except that all bowling tournaments would certainly be cancelled. If there's a lesson we can glean from both Homer's experience and from our own recent turn of events, it's that nothing in life should be taken for granted. Because really, you have no idea when and just how rapidly things are going to change.
Thursday, 12 March 2020
Note: this review was written as part of the Pop Stars Moonlighting blogathon being hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews from 12th to 14th March.
Also, spoilers right out of the gate.
The ending to Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Paul Mazursky's 1986 take on Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning, is nothing if not confounding.
The film follows the adventures of Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte, who went on to star in this blog's favourite ex-musical, I'll Do Anything), a down-on-his-luck drifter who ends up being inducted into the lavish household of Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss), a millionaire who made his fortune selling clothes hangers to motel chains, after Dave catches Jerry attempting to end it all in his swimming pool. Dave's life of material luxury is experiencing something a drought on the emotional front - his marriage to Barbara (Bette Midler) has long run out of steam, prompting Dave to seek an alternative outlet in a not-so-illicit affair with the family maid Carmen (Elizabeth Pena), while Barbara attempts to turn a blind eye by immersing herself in a variety of New Age philosophies. Jerry's arrival at first appears to provide Dave with the radical shake-up he has long been craving, but over time the novelty of having a vagabond around the house begins to wear off, and Jerry, far from cleaning up his act under the guidance of the Whitemans, comes increasingly to represent a threat to the equilibrium, and to Dave's sovereignty, something he demonstrates through his systematic seduction of all three female members of the household, starting with Barbara, then Carmen, and finally Dave's 19-year-old daughter Jenny (Tracy Nelson). Indeed, one suspects the only thing preventing Jerry from also seducing Dave's son Max (Evan Richards), who is heavily insinuated to be a closet gay, and possibly even Dave himself is the fact that this was the mid-80s, and no mainstream Hollywood production would ever have been so audacious at the time. One might posit that, being a mainstream Hollywood production, the film was likewise not audacious enough to follow through on Renoir's ending, substituting it with something more befitting of the studio playbook. Unlike his French counterpart, who ultimately resumes his life of vagrancy, Jerry flirts with the idea of returning to the streets, taking with him a souvenir of his stay in the form of Matisse, Barbara's neurotic dog and the bane of Dave's pre-Jerry existence. Apparently, though, Jerry realises that he's found belonging and acceptance among the Whitemans, who forgive him his foibles, and chooses to settle with them.
It's an ending that struck a bum note with A.A. Dowd of The AV Club, who who complains that,"Down And Out only really falters in its final moments, with an ending that’s a bit more sentimental than the loopy one Renoir concocted." Ostensibly, it's the textbook Hollywood ending, and yet it doesn't exactly play like one. Shelia Benson of the Los Angeles Times was onto something when she described the final sequence as "enigmatic and curiously unsatisfying". It is a strange ending, and not just because it involves the entire Whiteman household congregating around Jerry as he gets down on all fours and attempts to feast on pate freshly harvested from a neighbour's garbage can. For all of the unity on display in that closing sequence, it's an ending that seems deliberately engineered to be unsettling, as if goading us into contemplating if we really are happy with the outcome in question. There are three details in particular that serve to disturb our sense of warm resolution:
- By the end of the film, Matisse seems to have graduated from being a manifestation of the neurotic savagery of his uptown environs to the facilitator of family togetherness. It his he who alerts Jerry to the presence of the Whitemans, who have followed him out into the streets. He also accompanies Jerry as he makes his way back toward the family. Look closely, however, and you'll see that Matisse never actually enters back in through the gate. In fact, the dog seems to completely disappear from the scene for the final moments of the film.
- The last one to step back through the gate is Dave, who lingers thoughtfully outside for a few moments, as if contemplating if he himself really wants to return to the life that lies within.
- As the end-credits scroll across the screen, we the viewers remain out in the streets among the garbage cans of Beverly Hills, where another, unknown vagrant, Jerry's doppelganger, wanders into view and past the camera.
Like the opening sequence to film, which shows Jerry drifting through the streets of Los Angeles with his dog Keroauc and a cart filled with various goods pilfered from trash cans, the ending is accompanied by "Once in a Lifetime", a 1981 single for New York art rockers Talking Heads, with its emphasis on the capriciousness and interchangeability of life (actually a parody of the kinds of proclamations that band frontman David Byrne would regularly hear from radio evangelists), and its repeated references to the water that proves integral to the narrative progression of Down and Out in Beverly Hills. It is this very sense of existential malaise encapsulated in the song that fuels Dave and Jerry's unlikely friendship, and eventually their rivalry. Jerry, who was outcast and forgotten by society long ago, reaches his lowest ebb after awakening to discover that Keroauc, the one being whose companionship he truly valued, has randomly upped and left him in his sleep, having been lured away by the seductive charms of a young woman with a paper bag filled with treats. His frantic search for his double-crossing dog leads him onto the Whitemans' grounds, where, after surveying his own reflection in their immaculately-kept swimming pool, he attempts to drown himself. Before he does so, he takes a second look at his reflection, and this time sees only a blank silhouette. Jerry's sudden appetite for self-destruction constitutes a rejection of the self; it is also cleansing, an opportunity to resurface as somebody else entirely. In that sense, the pool acts as a portal into another reality entirely, and the cleansing is experience not only by Jerry, but by Dave, who has the privilege of getting to dive in and deliver Jerry into this brand new state of being. Jerry's deliverance by Dave signals the beginning of a second shot at life for them both, or so Dave would undoubtedly love to believe. Dave's generosity toward Jerry offers him a gift-wrapped opportunity to jettison the guilt he complains of at the start of the film, but it is also implied that Dave takes such an interest Jerry in part because he sees him as his own distorted reflection; an inkling of how his own life might have turned out in an alternate universe where things did not run in his favour. As he tells Jerry, in outlining his own self-congratulatory case history of going from selling lingerie from the backseat of his father's oldsmobile to his present status as a clothes hanger mogul, "You gotta be in the right place at the right time...do you think I knew I was going to be in the hanger business?" Jerry, meanwhile, would appear to confirm Dave's view that one's station in life is determined purely by the circumstances of any given day; he recounts his own tragic case history of how he tumbled ever downward on the rungs of the social ladder, which involved a shot at an acting career that was thwarted when he was dumped by old flame Linda Evans and then deeply affected by the loss of his sister to leukemia. Dave, fed up with the stagnancy of his own life, seems appreciative of the glimpse Jerry provides into how things could just have easily gone for him had he not struck up a conversation with that businessman opening up a chain of motels on that fateful day, even going to far as to spend a night out on a beach in the company of Jerry's peers. At one point, Barbara telephones a radio shrink to vent her frustrations at Dave's latest passion project (she does so, characteristically, under a false identity, recasting herself as 26-year-old Dawn from Toluca Lake). The shrink suggests that Dave is "living a vicariously freer life through the presence of this displaced person," and while we suspect there is more than an inkling of truth to this, we likewise sense that Dave's infatuation with Jerry and with life on the streets never amounts to much more than simple novelty. This much is evident in the sheer condescension with which he later recounts the experience of camping out with a community of bums: "They live like animals, but they have great capacity for joy."
Dave may be drawn to Jerry for what he sees as an enviable lack of responsibilities, but paradoxically he must also deprive Jerry of that very freedom - have him leashed, groomed and neutered and inducted into the hanger business that he personally excelled in. His interest in Jerry, ultimately, has less to do with validating Jerry's existence as any more meaningful and fulfilling as his own than in doing a nice redemption job on the dirty bum who fell so low that he tried to destroy himself in his swimming pool. In part, Dave's desire to make a model hanger businessman out of Jerry may stem from his lack of a positive relationship with Max, and his need to mold someone in his own image in his place, but more crucial is Dave's need to eliminate the threat that the wily nonconformist poses to his own existence; by goading Jerry into following in his own footsteps, he is effectively reaffirming the supremacy of his own path. When Dave finally realises that Jerry is incorrigible, he is compelled to violently return him to the portal from whence he came, hurling Jerry back into the swimming pool and attempting to submerge him beneath the waters.
The film's greatest enigma is Matisse the dog, an animal who does not live like one and in the beginning has seemingly no capacity for joy. Although Barbara tolerates Dave's adulterous activities (she later professes to Jerry that she does so under the naive belief that Dave is simply seeking a sexual reawakening that he will duly transfer onto her), Matisse makes his disapproval plain; he lingers at the bottom of the stairway, waiting to snarl at Dave as he tiptoes down in the middle of the night, and while he can be temporarily placated with biscuits, he manages to sabotage Dave's sexual liaisons by activating the intruder alarm and bringing a squadron of police cars to the household. Matisse's uncanny behaviour seems to be rooted more in animosity toward Dave than loyalty to Barbara, whom he flabbergasts with his refusal to eat any of the expensive dog foods she buys him. Elsewhere, Matisse also attacks one of the family's neighbours, recorder producer Orvis Goodnight (Little Richard). It would be easy to label Matisse as the dog from Hell, were he not played by such an appealing-looking border collie (Mike, who would also appear in the film's short-lived TV spin-off*, and the 1986 Disney Channel movie Spot Marks the X). When Jerry arrives, Matisse takes an instant shine to him; in fact, it is Matisse who beckons Jerry onto the Whiteman grounds in the first place, for Jerry is drawn in by the sounds of Matisse barking, desperately believing it to be the sounds of his own lost dog Keroauc. To infer that Jerry has a special way with dogs would be to ignore the sad truth that Keroauc willfully abandons him at the start of the film, having woken up one day and apparently decided to give up being a vagrant's dog and go with the first passer-by who offers him snacks. Nevertheless, it would be fair to suppose that Jerry hits it off with Matisse because he himself is so much like a dog. His hairy, disheveled appearance at the start of the film gives him a heavy canine aura, and he later reveals himself to be something of a pet food gourmet. At the end of the film, Dave uses a very dog-like metaphor to describe Jerry's own actions, assuring him that, "I gave you a hand and you bit it." Most tellingly, though, is the manner in which he challenges Dave's authority by urinating onto his flower bed (could there be a starker metaphor?)
In one of the film's most revealing scenes, Jerry is able to coax Matisse out of his self-inflicted famine by getting down on all fours and eating from his bowl of puppy chow. Jerry tells Barbara that Matisse's troubled behaviour stems from the delusion that he too is one of the humans: "There are no dogs around to teach it, so it's got no dog friends and no dog family, nothing to relate to." We end up sensing that this is really what's going on between Jerry and the Whitemans - that the Whitemans themselves are a pack of dogs who've been driven out of their wits by the daily pressures of having to pretend to be human, and while Dave may see it is his mission to teach Jerry to put on a suit and tie and be one of the people, what they really crave is the influence of another dog to teach them how to get back in touch with their underlying canine urges. It is tempting to view Matisse as a totem of Jerry himself - his early hostility toward Dave foreshadows Jerry's incoming insubordination, the dog is seldom far from Jerry's side, and in one of the film's more whimsical sight gags Matisse can be seen attempting to imitate Jerry's Tai chi exercises. Yet it seems all the more accurate to suggest that Matisse is an extension of his owners, his various messy neuroses providing an uncomfortable mirror image to their own quirks and eccentricities. Matisse's aggression toward Dave is a shorthand for Barbara's own repressed anger (or alternatively, Dave's self-loathing), while his refusal to eat recalls Dave's comments about Jenny's supposed anorexia (we might take issue with the fact that, Jenny's anorexia, if indeed she is anorexic, is treated as yet another mild eccentricity of the privileged, and not a debilitating illness that could potentially threaten her life). Later, when Jerry seduces Barbara, the dog observes and appears to share in Barbara's orgasm.
Before Jerry arrives, the Whitemans are drowning in their own phoniness. Throughout his stay, Jerry coaxes out many of their repressed feelings and urges, bringing Barbara out of her sexual drought, encouraging Max to talk to his father about his sexuality (this is never ruminated on explicitly, although Max does indirectly out himself to Dave by dressing up in androgynous fashion at his swanky Christmas party), and convincing Carmen to vent her feelings of anger toward her employers by delving into communist literature. All the same, Jerry is not liberating their inner dog so much as wheedling it to perform at his command, much as he does with Matisse in training him to do a "half-gainer" from the pool's diving board. He figures out what's at the core of each individual household member's canine nature so that he can manipulate it to his own advantage, his ultimate goal being to topple Dave's position as master of the house. And getting in touch with their inner mutt does little to shake the Whitmans' delusions of humanity. To the contrary, Jerry's sexual conquest of Barbara only sends her hurtling ever deeper down another avenue of fantasy. She tells Jerry that, "It's good to be back in the real world again," yet we are never led to believe that her sudden attraction to Jerry (who up until this point had only repulsed her) runs any deeper than Dave's. The highly theatrical manner with which she describes the experience would imply that Jerry is but a newly-discovered novelty for her to indulge in, every bit as frivolously as she does the assorted New Age programs she has used, up until now, to conceal her bitterness over her loveless marriage to Dave. At one point, The Divine Miss M regales Jerry with a rendition of the standard love ballad "You Belong To Me", which itself hints at the illusory nature of her bond with Jerry ("Remember when a dream appears, you belong to me").
At the end of the film, following the climactic confrontation in which Dave attempts to banish Jerry back down into the depths of the pool, Jerry admits that he too has been playing a role all along, and confesses that his stories about Linda Evans, his failed acting career and his deceased sister, among others, were all fabrications. When challenged on this, he asks Dave what he actually wanted to hear: "Real sorrow, real heartbreak? It's boring." It is this revelation that left such a sour taste in Benson's mouth; she stated that, "Mazursky undercuts everything we've come to believe about the man; we're left feeling cheated, as though Jerry had been neutered into a family pet." There remains, however, some ambiguity on this point. Following his re-cleansing in the chlorinated waters, it seems that Jerry is once again discarding one identity and assuming another, although which, if either, is the "real" Jerry? The film has certainly done enough to infer that Jerry isn't bluffing when he reflects on his past accomplishments, even if, like Dave, we are occasionally inclined to question his credibility. When he arrives at the Whitemans' property, he is already a full-fledged pianist and masseur, and he certainly knows his Shakespeare, casually reciting Hamlet's "What a piece of work is man" monologue in the midst of a conversation with Dave (that he named his dog after the writer Jack Keroauc likewise hints at his educated background). When he admits to having made everything we know about him up, however, all we have to go on is his word. Is Jerry only now, in fact, telling the Whitemans what he thinks they want to hear, just so that he can be excused from the bridge he figures he's burning? Perhaps Jerry, who is accustomed to drifting from one place to another without ties, has a similar outlook on identity - ultimately, all identities are constructs that can be regularly disassociated and discarded at will, much as Keroauc opted, quite out of the blue, to give up on being Jerry's dog.
In the end, I have to disagree with Dowd about the conclusion being excessively sentimental. I think whatever sentiment is there is off-set by the oddness of it all; whichever way you slice it, it is a troubling resolution. As Jerry makes his unceremonious departure from the Whiteman grounds, he promises Matisse the world: "There's lots of places we can go: 'Frisco, Santa Fe, Ensenada...I'll show you the best parks to sleep in, beaches where the coconuts flop into the palms of your hands." His enticing sales pitch is immediately undermined when he proceeds to root through the neighbours' garbage for "only the best gourmet chow in town", and pulls out a tin of pate; once again, he gets down on all fours and invites his canine friend to join him, but on this occasion Matisse isn't biting. He's too distracted by the reappearance of the Whitemans, who have now all gathered together in the street to watch their old companion's attempted dinner date. There are a couple of ways to interpret this final sequence. We might see this closing display of unity among the Whitemans as a sign that their mutual attachment to Jerry has, in fact, brought them together, and that all of them, in congregating out on the streets among the garbage cans, are entering the real world for the first time. That no further words are spoken between Jerry and his audience might be taken as an expression of sincerity, the suggestion that a genuine human (or canine) connection has been forged. The more cynical interpretation would be that Jerry, on realising that there is an audience gathered around and watching him eat garbage, suddenly feels incredibly self-conscious, and is shamed into getting back on two feet and accepting Carmen's more palatable offer of a cappuccino. In either case, as Jerry heads back toward the Whitemans he visibly attempts to tidy his hair with his hand, indicating that he does intend to clean himself up in order to fit in with his adopted family. Is Jerry, then, a person who has lived like a dog but has finally learned, under the influence of his high-class hosts, how to be a person? I would argue that Mazursky and Capetanos' script is, in all other respects, too sly and subversive to ultimately succumb to the very condescension it has spent so much time, up until now, ruthlessly satirising. I prefer the reverse interpretation - that Jerry is a dog who has spent enough time in the company of other dogs who like to play at being human that he's grown accustomed to their game of play-pretend. Jerry decides that his place is right here among these phonies. And his domestication leaves us feeling melancholic. We get a small hint that some of his animal nature remains intact, in the seductive smile he flashes at Jenny, but Matisse's absence from the final arrangement is bothersome, as it suggests that the dog, literal and figurative, must be surrendered at the gate. To return to the Whiteman grounds is, it's inferred, to retreat back into that world of falseness and self-delusion, and in the closing moments we see Dave waver on whether or not to reaffirm his own commitment to the status quo. Now that the newcomer has been formally assimilated into the household, a man who could even have been himself under a different set of circumstances, he potentially has the opportunity to slip away then and there, discarding his identity as Dave the hanger mogul and insensitive husband and going in search of those fabled coconut beaches, confident that his place within the Whiteman household has been filled.
Ultimately, Dave returns to the falsities of his family home, but we remain outside, among the garbage of the real world. We are not alone for long, for we are joined shortly by the unfamiliar vagrant who comes pushing his own loaded cart along the street as the credits roll, wandering, seemingly, to no place in particular. Now that Jerry has left the outside world, it appears that another individual has already arrived to assume the vacant gap. This unknown vagrant is symbolic of the wider world that continues to pass the Whitemans by, and of the "real sorrow" to which Jerry had accused them of being willfully oblivious, and which which shows no signs of slowing down. He remains a mystery, a blank figure waiting to bestowed with an identity. For now, his main purpose seems to lie in simply haunting the streets, a reminder of the possible path that Dave did not pursue, and which will forever be lingering in the world outside his door, stirring in its omnipresence.
* The TV spin-off aired on the Fox network in 1987 but was cancelled after eight episodes, leaving five episodes unaired. Mike and Evans Richards were the only cast members from the movie to return.
Wednesday, 4 March 2020
The MiniDisc sits alongside the Betamax and the Capacitance Electronic Disc in the array of misfit formats that might at some point have dictated our media consumption in alternate timelines but in this particular life just weren't meant to be. When Sony first launched the MiniDisc in 1992, audiophiles the world over could not contain their indifference. Believing in the strength of their product, Sony persisted, and in the latter stages of the decade there was an extensive marketing blitz designed to relaunch the MiniDisc as the must-have music innovation for the up-to-the-minute music lover. The results were mixed - MiniDiscs found popularity in Japan, and to a lesser extent the UK, but never gained much of a foothold in the US. And the window of opportunity for making any kind of long-lasting impression on popular consciousness was just about running out. We were entering the new millennium, and the age of the mp3 player was not far away. In early 2013, the MiniDisc was officially pronounced dead, with Sony announcing that it was pulling the plug once and for all on the format revolution that wasn't. You can read more about the MiniDisc's troubled shelf life here.
The benefits of the MiniDisc, so far as I can tell, were that they were recordable and could fit snugly in your pocket, although I never got close enough to learn any more. I have to confess that it all pretty much passed me by at the time, and I still have no first-hand experience with the format whatsoever. But it made its mark nevertheless. For me, the legacy of the MiniDisc was this strangely nightmarish advert that for a while seemed to show up in every theatrical preview reel I sat through in the late mid-90s (not the ad mentioned in the above Guardian article, in which a gormless-looking disc devotee has strangers go naked in public at the flick of a finger - this one was way cooler). The one-minute ad emphasised the MiniDisc's recording capabilities through the arresting imagery of a man being pursued across the desert by his doppelganger, who mimicked his every last movement. Along route, they encounter a crocodilian (every bone in my body wants to call that creature a crocodile, but I'm not confident enough in my ability to distinguish crocodiles and alligators from the fleeting footage we get, so I'm doing the non-committal thing and calling it a crocodilian), who lunges at the original but ignores his clone - but the clone reacts anyway, as if being willed by a force beyond his control. Spooky.
The croc earns the "horrifying" tag because I used to genuinely dread its appearance as a pre-teen, what with that ominous ocular close-up, the blurred crocodilian perspective shot and that rapid attack on the passing protagonist, but really, the croc's just part of an all-round very freakish and disturbing milieu. I find every last component of this ad to be strangely off-kilter, and they saved by far the most unsettling detail for last. It builds toward an appropriately gut-churning climax, in which the protagonist and his duplicate take a death-defying leap from the top of a bridge down onto a train in motion, and...well, watch the ad for yourself and see what happens. That final reveal...it's just nasty.
I appreciate that the point of this whole uncanny scenario is that the doppelganger is such a "brilliant copy" that he'll replicate the original's actions perfectly, regardless of whether it makes sense for him to do so or not, but still, you would expect there to be a lot more blood at the end in that second carriage. The man did just leap down into a pile of moving rubble, after all. I think the most minor scuff he'd be looking at would be a broken ankle.
For those of you who weren't there at the time, what can never recreated from a mere YouTube upload is the searing intensity you always felt in having this blaring at you from the big screen. The accompanying music track - "Chinese Burn" by English alternative rock duo Curve - is clearly supposed to be the kind of cutting-edge track you would go for if you were an up-to-the-minute 90s audiophile chic enough for a miniature disc that fits in your pocket, but its throbbing, feverish energy only adds to the overall sense of adrenalin-spiking urgency. There's also the protagonist's rather strange choice of abode - the man is so cutting-edge that he not only uses MiniDiscs, but lives in a swanky space age pod out in the middle of nowhere - which in practice looks downright surreal. Obviously, the intended outcome is that I'm supposed to be impressed by the actor's athletic prowess, an embodiment of the nimble capabilities of the MiniDisc format, and that's all very well-staged, but I'd say the ad plays just as convincingly as a horror piece as it does an ostentatious pose strike. The concept of a person being chased by their doppelganger is inherently unsettling, because it suggests that there's an alternate version of the self vying for sole survival rights; the doppelganger attempting to assume the place of the original is a familiar horror trope. Here, though, it's obvious that the brilliant copy is the one being victimised. The croc might give him a free pass, but he's clearly the protagonist's puppet, an accessory being dragged along on this chase whether he wills it or not, to the point where he's finally forced down onto a pile of speeding rocks and isn't even permitted the freedom to scream out in pain. This is some serious Tethered grotesquery going on right here.
Really though, if you want to get into failed media formats of the waning 20th century, we should go over the Tiger Electronics HitClip some time. I have no idea what life is like the alternate universe where those became a mainstream mainstay, but I'll bet it's very screwy all-around.
Wednesday, 26 February 2020
So far, my deep dive into the strange and enthralling world of murine horror has taken me to some curious places. We've encountered giant rats on the moon in vintage sci-fi anthologies, uncanny monsters in 1990s children's entertainment, and off-screen menaces in minimalist 1970s horror. Something I have not yet gone into as an example, however, is the nature documentary. "Uninvited Guests" aired as part of the BBC's flagship wildlife program, Wildlife on One, which ran from 1977 to 2005 and was narrated by David Attenborough (who is a fantastic person in virtually every regard, and we as a society did not deserve him; it's just unfortunate that he hates rats). The twenty-eight minute documentary was devoted to the subject of house pests - more specifically, pests in the process of taking over a vacant building, located in some unspecified part of the UK, after its human occupants have mysteriously packed up and fled. Much like Mouse Hunt, this is another story about the battle between man and mouse (and various other tiny specimens of the animal kingdom) for the dominance of a creaky old property, only here the battle is far more subtle in nature. As the miniature squatters go about exploiting the house's nooks and crannies to their own ends, their domestic bliss is intermittently disturbed by the intrusions of an estate agent, who has his work cut out in attempting to make the crumbling abode seem attractive to an assortment of prospective buyers - a task made no easier by the occasional intersecting of the parallel stories.
I was watching during the documentary's initial broadcast on 21st April 1998. I thought it was riveting stuff, and yet I must have been exhausted on the day in question, because for the life of me I could not keep my eyes open. In a moment of extreme weakness, I closed them for just long enough to be completely insensible for the final third of the documentary, only to awaken just a handful of seconds before the fade-out. It closed on a distinctive image, with a couple huddled together in bed in a state of evident unease, as if terrified at the thought of what might be stirring just beneath them. Attenborough's narration had previously emphasised that the house's prospects of being sold were becoming increasingly bleak, so it came as a surprise to see that, by the end, humans had apparently succeeded in making the property halfway livable again. Or had they? That couple seemed pretty worried about something, and I desperately longed to know the context. Alas, this was in the days before catch-up TV, and unless you'd set your VCR, once something had aired it was gone, potentially forever. If you wanted to see it again, then you were at the mercy of the scheduling bigwigs seeing fit to grant it a second run, which tended to happen far more frequently with sitcoms than with natural history documentaries. So for all I knew I had squandered my one opportunity to see this properly forever, and all because I had momentarily given in to that infernal carnal impulse of mine. Still, I never forgot the anxiety of that couple at the end, and the image continued to haunt me for just shy of twenty-two years. According to the BBC's online TV guide, "Uninvited Guests" was repeated only once, on 26th August 2004 on BBC2, but I did not happen to catch it. Wildlife on One also never saw any kind of DVD or Blu-Ray release, and while I would intermittently search YouTube for the program, just on the off-chance that anyone else had uploaded it, I always came up short. My prospects of ever seeing the elusive documentary in full were bleak...until January this year, when I discovered that someone had very courteously uploaded the episode, along with many other Wildlife on One episodes, to The Internet Archive. Obviously, I wasn't about to let this get away.
"Uninvited Guests" did not disappoint. I can see exactly why this made such a great impression on me back in 1998, and why I'd remained so driven to find what had passed me by in the aftermath. "Uninvited Guests" must be one of the quirkiest installments of Wildlife on One (I would hesitate to call it the quirkiest, because I have memories of another episode done in the style of CSI, with all these forensic tests being carried out to determine which rainforest-dwelling carnivore had whacked and devoured an innocent sloth - sadly, that episode, "Amazon Assassin", is not on The Internet Archive). Nature documentaries aren't, of course, traditionally thought of as potential horror fodder - even at their most carnage and Amazon assassin packed, they are generally perceived as safe, non-threatening viewing. And yet they have the potential to depict the world from an entirely different, more alien perspective, and this is something that "Uninvited Guests" certainly excels at. It celebrates the strange beauty of decay, and the process of something familiar and domestic being transmuted into an inhospitable wilderness, as nature comes creeping in in a variety of small but powerful forms and reclaims the terrain as its own. But what makes the documentary especially memorable is the manner in which it wittily intersects this process with the fictional human drama running alongside it. (Unfortunately, the information given in the end-credits is fairly limited - we are told that the human cast consisted of Jeremy Balfour, Lindsey Harvey, Peter Nicholas, Louis Dougherty and Katie Holder, but I am unable to say who played what role. Also not revealed is anything of the filming locations; I would at least have liked to have known where the house used for the exterior shots was based.) Footage of mice, slugs and silverfish is juxtaposed with an array of hauntingly atmospheric shots showing the various abandoned material artifacts left to stagnate around the property. Some of this imagery - moth-eaten taxidermy, a baby doll with hollowed out eyes - seems a little too knowingly on the nose, as if the documentary intends both to unnerve us and slip in a few tongue-in-cheek gags at the expense of horror cliche. The episode is filled with playful visual gags - at one point, we see the pages of a book blowing in the wind, revealed to be a copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and elsewhere we see a snow globe topple in an obvious nod to Citizen Kane. But none of this detracts from the genuine eeriness of the story being told - or, more accurately, the implicit narrative that's only vaguely alluded to. We get a handful of scenes in which the estate agent is nervously attempting to talk up the building to apathetic house hunters, but far more telling is the drama communicated by the absent humans - the untold stories of those lives suddenly vacated. We get only a very distant, fleeting glimpse of the house's original owners during the establishing sequence, as they pack their bags and abandon the property in the dead of night. The estate agent later informs us, somewhat cryptically, that they left in "something of a hurry." Eloping? Fleeing a possible forensic investigation? We can only speculate. Early shots, also from the well of horror convention, show children sneaking a cautious glimpse at the building grounds, suggesting that the abandoned house has become the subject of local lore and curiosity. Is the house haunted? It might as well be, for the previous owners pack up and exit in such a hurry that they leave behind their cat, who continues to stalk the halls of the property as a sort of avatar for its absent owners. The cat, it seems, was never really there, in the sense that Attenborough's narration never sees fit to acknowledge it. It is less a member of the house's ever-increasing fauna population than a ghost, a silent reminder of a fading past that Man and Nature alike regard with equal indifference.
What is unsettling about "Uninvited Guests" has less to do with its emphasis on the assortment of floorboard-dwelling creepy-crawlies with which we could be sharing a home and wouldn't know it, than with its depiction of what would become of the world we'd leave behind if we were to suddenly up and disappear - the evidence that we were ever here, and of the lives we once led, and how rapidly this is picked apart, modified and eradicated by the opportunists who arrive to take our place. At the same time, a great deal of admiration is evoked for the sheer resourcefulness with which the various guests adapt and make use of the decaying property - the mice who, having worked their way through the jars of biscuits and Marmite in the larder, are able to survive on the tallow in candles and soap, the slugs who feast on the yeast-flavoured delights growing on the outside of botttles, and the lice who live off the mold inside old books. There isn't a corner of the house that goes exploited, with every crack becoming a potential entrance point, if not for wildlife then for garden fungi, seen mushrooming here through delightful use of time-lapse photography. Much like one of the more wonderfully grotesque of these residents, the slime mold, described by Attenborough as "an alliance of hundreds of thousands of amoeba-like creatures" assuming the form of a slug-like creature and exuding slime in its quest for sustenance, one gets the distinct impression that all of these guests are coming together to represent the collective character of the house - which, far from declining, is finally realising its full potential. Only ever ostensibly a place of safe domesticity, it appears that the wilderness was never actually banished around here, merely lurking out of sight beneath the floorboards, waiting for the moment when it could finally crawl to the surface and assume complete control. This is reinforced by the fact that, for the most part, the human interlopers seem blissfully oblivious as to the myriad of animal dramas unfolding all around them. There are only two points in the narrative in which the human and wildlife narratives directly intersect - a moment where the estate agent, in the midst of a house showing, stumbles upon the mice raiding the food supplies and comically redirects his clients to a different part of the building, and another in which a couple of prospective buyers encounter a "tegenaria", or cardinal spider, lurking in the bath tub, and naively assume that they've vanquished the eight-legged menace by washing it down the plughole, when it's merely been lying in wait for the deluge to subside. (Due to the obviously staged nature of these encounters, it seems a safe bet that the animals we see are not actually wild home invaders but captive specimens, which is probably the case for a number of other scenes too). There comes a point where it seems difficult to say who are the real inferred "uninvited guests" of the title, as it is the human house hunters who appear out of place amid the increasingly murky domain (not that the animals have total mastery - that cardinal spider is apparently unable to climb its way out of the bath tub, foiled by the slippery enamel surface).
The documentary ends with a superficial victory for the humans. Following a harsh winter, in which the various domestic artifacts become lifelines for the house's resourceful wild residents, spring arrives, and brings hope for renewal. The cat is last seen being scared away by the falling debris caused by a family of squirrels nesting in the chimney, foreshadowing the arrival of the modern human family who will shortly move in and get to work on renovating the property, pulling out every stop to reclaim it back from the jaws of Nature. But although they toil hard in removing all traces of wilderness from within (their cleaning efforts are interspersed with various shots the family's young children running ruckus around the property, creating endless disturbance for the animals and signalling that their dark and dank paradise has finally been shattered), the task proves unending, for there is, in the best horror fashion, a grisly twist in the tale. While many creatures may be in the process of moving out, for others the real utopia is only just beginning. All around the house, legions of blood-sucking parasites are awakening to feast on the spoils brought by their fresh human company, roused by the warmth of the carbon dioxide in their breath. The war between Man and Nature, it seems, is not over but is merely entering a whole new phase, and while Nature may have been forced back into the sidelines for now, there is the implicit suggestion that it maintains the upper hand.
The final moments of "Uninvited Guests" play like the opening of a horror story, with our proud home-owning couple attempting to sleep in their new bedroom, only to find themselves inexplicably unsettled. They are intuitively aware of the other presences stirring within the house and, despite the husband's best attempts to reassure his wife that, "There's no one here but us", can only lie there in the cool grip of insomnia, as the documentary fades out with the sounds of an off-screen calamity occurring downstairs. It's never established what caused that, but I like to think that it was the cat, who didn't completely scarper when the squirrels sent a shower of soot raining down upon it. Obviously, the ghosts of this house's untold history won't be banished quite so easily.
Sunday, 16 February 2020
The Ghostly Trio are a close-knit group, and there's not a lot that could come between them, although the seductive allures of a bewitching banshee might be enough to put them at loggerheads. It's mid-February and the world hasn't quite gotten Valentine's Day out of its system, so now seems like an appropriate time to look at our first glimpse into the Trio's universal lovesickness for the ghoul with the lungs of steel. "3 Boos and a Babe/Elusive Exclusive" was the fifth episode of The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper - it aired on March 30th 1996 and was later released on VHS by Universal Home Video, alongside "Poil Jammed/A Picture Says A Thousand Words."
3 Boos and a Babe:
So, in the series Casper attends a school for dead children (which is grim as hell but, unlike the 1995 movie, the TV series didn't dwell too hard on the morbid implications of its premise). Here, we see the origin of one of the series' long-running arcs - the Ghostly Trio's admiration for Casper's teacher, Ms Banshee, and their ongoing efforts to impress her. Technically, this wasn't the first time they'd encountered Ms Banshee - they were in the same room as her in the very first episode, "Spooking Bee", although I guess they can't have been paying much attention then. Despite their best efforts, the Trio never get anywhere with her, for Ms Banshee is regarded as seriously hot stuff among the ghosting community, and she's not going to settle for a trio of common or garden poltergeists when she could be dating the ghosts of dead celebrities. And she certainly seems to get around. In this episode, she's seen dating the ghost of Clark Gable, and elsewhere in the series she was revealed to have also been romantically involved with the ghost of Bob Marley. In addition, it seems that she's not adverse to experimentation with fleshies, because in another episode she attempted to fuck Dr Harvey.
Ms Banshee's not very into the Trio, although one thing they do have in common is their mutual disdain for Casper's scaring prowess, or lack thereof. Ms Banshee has summoned the Trio because she's concerned about Casper's academic progress and thinks that he requires a terror tutor. The Trio see an opportunity to get into the comely banshee's good graces by putting themselves forward for the task, although immediately they run into a problem, in that there are three of them and only one Ms Banshee, and as such this is probably not going to work out (and Banshee did indicate during her aforementioned pursuit of Harvey that she doesn't do polyamorous relations). Each of them manages to commandeer Casper for long enough to attempt to showcase how their own unique styles of scaring can help the friendly ghost to become a world-class specter. In all three cases, Casper incorporates the techniques poorly, and Ms B ejects them unceremoniously from her classroom. Eventually the Trio stop their infighting and figure that Casper is really to blame for making them all look bad. Meanwhile, Ms Banshee receives a call from a familiar suitor.
- At one point, the Trio end up on the set of prime time soap opera Melrose Place, one of Fox's hottest shows of the day. The cast look down their noses at the Trio for hailing from a daytime slot, so the Trio retaliate by combining their spectral powers to morph into the one thing they know will scare the bejesus from them - Rupert Murdoch screaming that they're fired. Melrose Place took place in a swanky apartment complex in West Hollywood, California, and followed the melodrama-soaked lives of the glamorous twentysomethings living therein. I recently watched a random episode, and what can I say? The dialogue was risible and the storylines utterly hokey, but then again it is a soap, so possibly it's that way on purpose? Actually, there was something I found very weirdly unsettling about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on (it had a chilling aura, and I'm inclined to say that it wasn't a coincidence that my pet rat Freak went into a spooked frenzy while it was playing). Also of note is that it had Andrew Shue, aka the man who came the closest to cracking the mystery of who shot Mr Burns.
- Stretch says, "I don't mean to toot my own petard." Obviously, he's amalgamated the two idioms "to toot ones own horn/trumpet" (brag about one's own achievements and abilities) and "to be hoisted by one's own petard" (be injured by one's own offensive). The latter originates from William Shakespeare's Hamlet, and "petard" refers to a kind of bomb, although bonus points if you knew that the name was derived from the French word péter, meaning to fart. So yes, Stretch did effectively say, "I don't mean to blow my own farts." Who says that scat humour can't be highbrow?
- Casper's line, "Women are from crypts, men are from mausoleums," is a reference to the controversial book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by relationship counselor John Grey, which was first published in 1992. Controversial because...yeah, I think the book's problem is evident enough from the title alone.
- Ms Banshee has a copy of Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" hanging in her classroom. Munch painted the iconic image, he claimed, in an effort to represent an infinite scream he sensed surging through nature while watching a sunset in which the sky turned as red as blood. It follows that this would be right up a banshee's alley.
- As noted, the ghost who shows up at the end of the episode for a date with Ms Banshee is deceased actor Clark Gable (1901 - 1960), best known for playing Rhett Butler in Victor Fleming's 1939 film Gone With The Wind. There are two allusions to Gone With The Wind here - firstly, when Gable informs the Trio, "Frankly, you fools, I don't give a hoot!", a reference to Butler's iconic line, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn", which was considered edgy as sin back in its day. At the very end, Casper attempts, unsuccessfully, to mollify the Trio by assuring them that, "Tomorrow is another day," the conclusion that Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) reaches at the end of Fleming's film after being on the receiving end of Butler's aforementioned condemnation.
Something we would occasionally get earlier on in the series were these short pieces with visuals in the style of US artist Edward Gorey, which aesthetically made for nice change of pace. This skit, "The Whipstaff Inmates", takes us on a guided tour of each of the main characters, in wittily penned verses by Chris Otsuki. Again, this was the fifth episode, so by now we already knew full well who most of these characters were, but it's still fun to hear each of them receive their own poetry stanza in their honor. Presumably, calling them "inmates" is intended to make it sound as if Whipstaff is some kind of unconventional psychiatric hospital (which I suppose it is).
Actually, the title is somewhat misleading, as several of the featured "inmates" (including Spooky, Poil and Ms Banshee) do not live at Whipstaff. There is another character featured in this segment who's referred to only as "The Journalist" - he's the only one whom we hadn't already encountered in an episode proper at this stage, although his more formal introduction is coming up in the next story. His real name is Perry Piscatore, and he's basically the closest thing the series has to a recurring antagonist (unless you want to count Amber, although she's more of an antagonist for Kat specifically and tends not to get directly involved with the ghosts), albeit just barely - despite being framed as an important cast member in this particular skit, his appearances in the series are few and far between. As antagonists go, Piscatore is more of a bungling nuisance than he is a genuine threat; he's aware that Whipstaff is haunted and aspires to make a name for himself by proving the existence of ghosts to the world, but he doesn't know the half of what he's doing, so in practice he's really his own worst enemy.
Here's the poem in full:
The house called Whipstaff is the dwelling
folks in Friendship fear the most.
Let's go in and hear the telling
of who lives there, man and ghost.
The friendly ghost is never nasty.
He's loyal, friendly, truthful, trusting.
He never does a thing that's ghastly.
That's why ghosts find him disgusting!
The doctor treats ghosts by the hour
to turn them from their spooky games.
His patients do all in their power
to thwart his therapeutic aims.
The doctor's daughter finds it gaggy
living here with ghost and ghoul.
She says they're weird, but that's exactly
How schoolmates view her here at school.
The stinky one delights in making
smell-o-grams in deadly doses.
He leaves our noses sore and aching
with his own brand of halitosis.
The fatso ghost is always eating
every moment, night or day.
Since he's skinless, we must wonder
Where he puts it all away.
The Stretch, without a hint of error,
morphs up faces terrifying.
But none of these can match his terror
seeing Casper friend-ifying!
The journalist, with plans aggressive,
seeks ghosts on film, come snow or rain.
He goes to lengths somewhat obsessive.
His colleagues think him quite insane.
The spooky one is tough and scrappy.
For scaring fleshies he's a beaut.
But Poil keeps him far from happy
because she finds his nose so cute.
The pearl is sweet, but Spooky would rather
cast this beauty before swine.
He daily bears her thoughtless blather.
She's driving him out of his mind!
We find the teacher somewhat strident.
Her screams are good at breaking things!
We think you'll find the game is over,
When this not-so-fat lady sings.
So Whipstaff is the haunted manor
where all these ghosts and ghouls abound.
And we agree, with perfect candor,
It's the weirdest place around!
Investigative journalist Perry Piscatore crashes Whipstaff Manor with the intention of hosting a live broadcast exposing the ghoulish activity within. Neither Harvey or Kat appreciate the intrusion - particularly Kat, who is concerned that publicity of this magnitude would transform their abode into an unlivable media circus. The Ghostly Trio, by contrast, are delighted, not only by the prospect of getting to terrorise such willing fleshie prey, but by the possibility of becoming TV stars in the process. Casper, meanwhile, isn't fussed, because he understands why Piscatore's plan is doomed to fail - ghosts don't reflect light, and as such they cannot be photographed (the Trio are apparently unaware of this). After a failed attempt to warn the Trio, he figures that the best thing to do is to simply stand back and let nature take its course. Which it does - Piscatore is rendered a laughing stock and the Trio are disappointed to learn that their first-rate scaring went uncredited.
Airing in 1996, this predated the paranormal reality TV explosion that really look off in the 00s, with such shows as Ghost Hunters, Destination Truth and Most Haunted, although Fox were currently airing a series called Sightings, hosted by Tim White, which delved into an assortment of bizarre phenomena from an investigative news perspective. I took a brief look at one of their episodes on ghosts, and my immediate impressions were that it's no In Search of...(which I love, even if it is all hogwash). The whole premise of a live broadcast inside a haunted property had also been sent up a few years prior in the one-off BBC special Ghostwatch, which was actually a spoof, although it caused some controversy when it aired in 1992; it has since become something of a cult item.
- Harvey lists a number of his personal phobias in this episode - in addition to being areophobic and coulrophobic, he's afraid of stand-up comedian Carrot Top. Well, that's understandable.
- Harvey is voiced by Simpsons alumnus Dan Castellaneta in the animated series. I'm not sure to what extent he was attempting to mimic Bill Pullman, but I'd say the best way to describe his Harvey voice is that he sounds like a more genial, less gravelly version of Krusty the Clown (basically, how I'd imagine Krusty would sound if he wasn't such an avid chain-smoker). The voice is distinguished enough that I don't find that distracting, although when Harvey barks at Piscatore "You have obviously no concern for other people's privacy!", I can definitely hear Krusty in there.
- Among Piscatore's audience is talk show host Geraldo Rivera, who confides to the camera that Piscatore's car wreck of a broadcast is, "more pathetic than that time I opened Capone's vault!" Back on April 21st 1986, more than 30 million viewers tuned in for the syndicated television special, The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault. Hosted by Rivera, the two-hour special was dedicated to the live excavation and opening of crime lord Al Capone's recently-discovered secret vault at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, with the sensational hook that nobody could be entirely certain what they would find within. At the end of the special, the excavators ripped open the vault and America found itself staring into...a big fat nothing. Actually, that's not strictly true, for there was a small collection of empty bottles in there, but this disappointed Rivera's viewership, who were hoping for something more along the lines of dead bodies or hidden treasure. Instead, that ugly void in Capone's vault became the perfect metaphor for the emptiness of "event" television, the vacuousness of a media frenzy spun from absolutely nothing. Still, those two misspent hours weren't a total wash, as popular culture now had a wonderful new punchline in which to sink its teeth. Everywhere under the sun, creative types were savage in their mockery of Rivera's fiasco - in the field of animation alone, the special was also sent up in the Simpsons episode "Homer's Barbershop Quartet", and the Alvin & The Chipmunks episode "When The Chips are Down".
- Also watching is talk show host Phil Donahue, who finds Piscatore's efforts, "worse than when I put on a skirt!" Donahue's wife, Marlo Thomas, then appears and challenges him as to why he doesn't take the skirt off, whereupon we see that he's still wearing it. This is a reference to Donahue's practice of wearing skirts while hosting shows dedicated to the subject of cross-dressing. Good for him, if he likes his skirts so much.
- Stinkie pays homage to contemporary Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask (1994) when he launches his attack on Piscatore. Fatso clearly has more of an eye for the classics, for he comes at Piscatore in the style of Gloria Swanson's character from Billy Wilder's blackly comic noir Sunset Boulevard (1950), which, incidentally, is narrated by a ghost (I would assume....?)
- There are also a couple of references to Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982). Piscatore remarks, "If it worked for Spielberg, it'll work for me", shortly before using a television set to lure Stretch into view, a la the titular ghost from Hooper's film. He subsequently declares that, "They're heeeeeere!", with the intonation of Heather O'Rourke's character. Note that the authorship of Poltergeist has been the subject of long-standing controversy, with several accounts suggesting that writer/producer Steven Spielberg effectively had greater on-set control during the film's production, so Piscatore is simply falling in line in crediting him over Hooper. (Spielberg, of course, also produced the Casper movie, which itself contains a nod to Poltergeist, during the sequence where Harvey examines himself in the bathroom mirror.)
- This episode ends with a rare victory for Casper (it's far more common for episodes to conclude in the style of "3 Boos and a Babe", with the Trio chasing after Casper, something that was explicitly acknowledged in the Season 2 episode "A Midsummer Night's Scream"). Here, Casper informs Stretch that he cannot slug him, and when Stretch challenges him on this, Casper responds, "Because it's my turn!", (echoing an exchange between Stretch and Stinkie earlier from in the episode) and proceeds to headbutt Stretch in a surprisingly violent manner. Still, if you're on Casper's side then I wouldn't celebrate too raucously, as you know he paid like hell for that stunt right after the fade out. Stretch, the alpha ghost of Whipstaff, wouldn't stand for that kind of insubordination from Stinkie or Fatso; he's sure as heck not going to take it from Casper.