Thursday, 9 July 2020

Talking Heads '98: The Outside Dog (aka It's A Blessing We're Detached)


First of all, a disclaimer. Life during lockdown has seen media outlets try some creative strategies in order to stay afloat, one of the more unexpected developments being the BBC's renewed interest in Alan Bennett's classic monologue series, Talking Heads, which recently got a shiny new makeover thanks to its social distance-friendly filming format (and, as a bonus, its prevalent interest in the subject of isolation). Before we get started, I should be clear that this commentary refers strictly to the original version of "The Outside Dog" with Julie Walters, and not to the remake with Rochenda Sandall, which I have yet to watch. I'm sure that Sandall gives a perfectly fine performance, but mine is a prejudiced ticker. When I saw the announcement that we were getting a new series of Talking Heads, my heart leapt, naive fool that I am, as for a brief second there I believed that we were actually getting a Talking Heads 3, something I had been clamoring for ever since studying the series back in school. Then, when I read the fine print and realised that only two of the monologues were brand new and the rest would be remakes of existing installments, such was my disappointment that I couldn't help but harbor a slight grudge against the entire project. Perhaps one day, when my disappointment has fully subsided, I'll be willing to give the remakes a fair chance. Today will not be that day, however.

Prior to this recent development, Talking Heads was comprised of two six-episode series, the first of which was broadcast in 1988 and the second, Talking Heads 2, in 1998. Each episode centres around a different character, typically one experiencing some form of personal or social alienation, who confides their assorted hopes, fears and suspicions to the camera. The speakers regard the camera as a kind of confessional, opening up in ways that most of them would presumably not do in the presence of the various other characters they mention, but they are nevertheless each very selective in how they present themselves. Part of what makes Talking Heads such a complex and absorbing series is that you can never afford to lose sight of the fact that you are, inevitably, only getting one character's side of the story, forcing you to read between the lines to decipher what additional details they might unwittingly reveal about themselves and the people around them. Bennett's keen wit and sharp eye for character observation ensures that every monologue has something to offer in the way of mirth, but they are by no means uplifting viewing - of the original twelve monologues, only a minority have endings that are not thoroughly upsetting. The two that end the most happily are, coincidentally, the two featuring Patricia Routledge - "A Lady of Letters" and "Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet" - and in both cases the happy ending is achieved through entirely unconventional means. In each we see Routledge play a judgemental and narrow-minded individual who, by the end of her experience, appears to have learned and grown, and developed a greater empathy and/or tolerance for her fellow human being. "A Chip In The Sugar" has more of a neutral ending than an outright happy one - it's an episode where the status quo ends up being reaffirmed, which is both a good and bad thing. "The Hand of God" closes on a note of deep humiliation for its protagonist that is nevertheless hilarious to the viewer. The remaining eight, however, all have bleak conclusions, although the level of bleakness varies from episode to episode. Some, such as "Her Big Chance", result in the protagonist being left in much the same pitiable situation as when we came in, with no indication that they'll be escaping their rut any time soon. In others, like "Soldiering On", we witness the total downfall of the character, or, as in "Playing Sandwiches", one of several implied downfalls in what clearly forms part of a vicious cycle for the character. And then we have the two monologues featuring Thora Hird - "A Cream Cracker Under The Settee" and "Waiting For The Telegram" - in which the respective protagonist is left with nothing to look forward to except her own (potentially imminent) demise. No character, however, winds up in a situation as unenviably nightmarish as that of Marjorie (Julie Walters) of "The Outside Dog", a genuinely terrifying piece that is perhaps the closest Bennett has ever come to outright horror. On another level, it plays beguilingly like a good old-fashioned murder mystery, but for the fact that we, much like the main character, are aware all along who the culprit is. On top of which, it's also very, very funny. No surprise to learn that it was apparently a major influence on Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith's blackly comic anthology series Inside No. 9.

"The Outside Dog" forms part of a trilogy of particularly grim Talking Heads installments that figure consecutively in the middle of Series 2, the other two being "Playing Sandwiches" and "Nights In The Garden of Spain". All three deal with the highly disturbing goings-on in seemingly banal venues, sexual abuse being a universal feature, along with characters who, presumably in response to the sordid reality of their lives, subsume themselves in some kind of extensive cleanliness routine. Whereas "Playing Sandwiches" is a "beware the friendly stranger" narrative (with the twist that it's told from the perspective of said friendly stranger, who perhaps doesn't strike us wholly as being so strange), "Nights In The Gardens of Spain" is more concerned with the abuses that occur within the domestic, familial sphere, or what protagonist Rosemary (Penelope Wilton) glibly describes as "the real face of suburbia." "The Outside Dog", which falls smack dab in the middle of the trio, serves as a bridge between the two. It boasts the most extreme (and by consequence the least probable) scenario, in that Marjorie's husband, Stuart, is a suspected serial killer. It's surely no coincidence that Marjorie is also the most pathological neat freak of the lot - unlike Wilfred (David Haig) of "Playing Sandwiches", whose diligence in eradicating litter is within the bounds of his job as a park keeper, and Rosemary, whose delight in enabling a garden to flourish apparently serves as an outlet for the kind of loving, nurturing energies that are denied in her own martial relationship, Marjorie's dedication to keeping her domestic space spotless is indicative of a deep hostility toward the outside world. This is initially manifested in her disdain for Stuart's dog Tina, who is denied entry to the property and spends her days tethered to a kennel in the yard, hence the title. To Marjorie, Tina represents all that is brooding and distasteful about the world beyond. In the early stages of the monologue, Marjorie takes pride in asserting how well-trained she has Stuart, who works in a slaughterhouse, a job wont to get messy, and who hails from a family she describes as being "scarcely above the pigsty level". Her success in conditioning him to ritually remove the blood from his boots before entering the house, and in enforcing the inflexible rule that Tina must not follow, would indeed appear to bear out her assertions. But of course, the viewer knows that what she says isn't quite accurate, as Marjorie is only concerned how Stuart behaves when inside the property. Like Tina, whose presence Marjorie (barely) tolerates so long as she remains outside in the yard, Marjorie seems willing turn a blind eye to whatever Stuart gets up to when he's out there in the open; it may even be the nexus on which their domestic arrangement hinges. But even then, her claims that Stuart is always perfectly well-mannered when under their shared roof transpire to be completely false. For not only might Stuart have another, very different kind of ritual that he practices out in the wastelands on his nightly walks with Tina, it becomes apparent throughout the course of the monologue that Stuart has a penchant for aggressive sex that definitely isn't mutual, but which Marjorie is powerless to reject.

Marjorie's uneasy relationship with Tina is an early signal that her handle on the situation is considerably weaker than she lets on, for there are multiple ways in which Tina is beyond her control. Not only does Tina bark incessantly in Stuart's absence, incurring the wrath of a neighbour whom Marjorie also abhors, her very presence, even outside the home, represents an encroachment on Marjorie's sense of safety. In the opening scene, Marjorie confides her irrational suspicion that Tina "spies on" her, which is suggestive of the level of control Stuart exerts in their relationship, even when he is not present. Viewed as a mere dog, one might easily feel a degree of sympathy for Tina, who spends all her time exiled to the yard and presumably barks due to her discomfort whenever Stuart, her sole ally, is not around. Tina is, on the one hand, a rival to Stuart's affections; Marjorie clearly envies the doting relationship the dog has with her husband, and the disparaging manner with which she describes Tina ("She licks his boots, literally") suggests that she sees the dog as knowingly commandeering attention from herself. But although the viewer cannot take seriously Marjorie's insinuations that Tina is conspiring against her, as the monologue goes on, Tina does take on a more sinister aura, if only by her association with Stuart's nauseating nocturnal life. The dog, it seems, is indeed in on something that Marjorie isn't. Which is not to say that Marjorie is totally oblivious.

Tina maintains an important presence all throughout the story, not just as an emblem of the ongoing domestic tensions between Marjorie and Stuart, but as a major plot point later on in the monologue, when she comes dangerously close to exposing Stuart's connection to the string of brutally murdered prostitutes that have been showing up in the surrounding area. (She is, incidentally, the only animal character of any consequence in any of the Talking Heads installments, although dogs named Tina seem to be a running gag throughout Bennett's monologues* - one is also mentioned at the start of "Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet", and in "A Woman of No Importance", which is not officially part of the Talking Heads canon, but served as a prototype for the series.)  The obvious symbolism to be gleaned from the titular dog is that she stands as a totem for Stuart's own bestial nature. He is thus the real "Outside Dog" of the story, one who supposedly surrenders his feral impulses at the door on entering the property (although not actually), but transforms into quite the bloodthirsty cur when left to roam out in the wilderness. The connection is made especially conspicuous in Marjorie's early assertions that, "It was me that trained Stuart. Me that trained the dog. Apart from the din, you can't train that." She would like to believe that she has both mucky pups broken-in, but Tina has found another means by which to express her uncouth nature, and Stuart, it seems, is just the same (Marjorie's resignation toward Tina's persistent barking likewise foreshadows her passivity toward Stuart's ongoing sexual abuse), It is also borne out by Tina's overall character trajectory, as by the end of the monologue, the have barriers come down and she has finally become an inside dog, which is symbolic of the total erosion of Marjorie's presumption of control.


This is the most obvious interpretation. You might even say that it's a little too obvious to truly satisfy. I would not dispute that there is a definite parallel to be drawn between Tina's banishment to the yard and Stuart's apparent ability to separate his domestic life from his private activities, but I'm personally more inclined to see Tina less as an analogue to Stuart than to Marjorie herself. The "real" Outside Dog is Marjorie, and she resents Tina so because it repulses her to glance out the window every day and see her own mirror image staring back at her. Marjorie claims that she has Stuart trained, but the reverse seems far more probable. Clearly, Stuart has Marjorie on a very tight leash. It is not Stuart who's been conditioned to swill off when he returns to the property, but Marjorie, who is required to disregard all suspicion and never question where Stuart goes or what he has been up to (as she says of Tina, "Never makes a muff when he's around"). And when night sets in, she has no recourse but to roll over and accept his unpleasant sexual aggression. The allusion is made all the more salient when viewed back-to-back with "Nights in The Gardens of Spain", which, more so than any other Talking Heads installment, serves as a direct companion piece to "The Outside Dog", in touching on several identical themes. There, the unassuming Rosemary slowly comes to terms with the revelation that the couple next door were far from the bland, respectable neighbours she'd always envisioned, when the wife murders the husband after years of withstanding his incessant physical and sexual abuse, which included keeping her on a collar and leash: "It turns out that Mister led her a dog's life...literally." (Meanwhile, there is no sex life to speak of between Rosemary and her own husband, Henry, but it is suggested that he's abused her on a much more emotional level.) Marjorie's distaste at Tina's boot-licking (literal and figurative) stems from her understanding that she is basically no different - or rather, that Tina leads the type of dog's life she can only aspire toward. Both she and Tina are at Stuart's beck and call, yet Tina is regarded with tremendous favouritism by Stuart, while Marjorie is excluded from his confidence and affections. Stuart privileges Tina by allowing her to come with him and share in his nocturnal predation, while Marjorie is simply a chew toy for him to sink his teeth into afterwards. Tina may be the one who is forced out into the yard, yet it is Marjorie who is effectively left out in the cold.

The viewer is given no reason to doubt Stuart's guilt in the killings, but the nagging question hanging all throughout "The Outside Dog" is just how much does Marjorie know? She blatantly has her concerns about the situation, and some of Stuart's behaviours certainly invite suspicion, but it is not altogether clear at what point Marjorie crosses over from casual wariness to full-on complicity. At the beginning of the monologue, she indicates that she has suspicions as to the truthfulness of what Stuart tells her, even before the killings get underway ("He took the van over to Rawdon last night. Said it was Rawdon, anyway..."). Later, when Stuart is arrested and the house ransacked for evidence, Marjorie is slightly dishonest with the police officer who asks her if Stuart has any additional items of clothing outside of the property. She doesn't exactly lie, for she is specifically asked if Stuart has anything at the dry cleaners. But she does not mention that Stuart has a pair of slacks that she has not seen for some time, and which he claims to be keeping at work. Marjorie's hostility toward police intervention entails the warning that she is in a precarious position, as if she is discovered to have colluded with Stuart in any way then she could end up being tried herself; Marjorie responds, as if by reflex, by diverting matters to her cleanliness regime ("I said, don't put those sheets back, I shall have them all to wash now you've been handling them"). Cleanliness matters to Marjorie because it is her only means of asserting control, hence why this is her go-to retort on being threatened by the police. This line is particularly revealing of her vulnerability, for not only is her response painfully ineffectual, it also suggests that, on another, far deeper level, her desire for physical purity is reflective of her need to purge herself of her own guilt in knowing far more about Stuart's activities than she cares to acknowledge. We suspect that, even early on in the monologue, when Marjorie notices that Stuart has become much more thorough in swilling off his boots and comments only, "I don't know what's gotten into him", that she is nowhere near naive as she lets on. Her feigned naivety, like her excessive cleanliness, is a defense mechanism. Clearly, Marjorie does know, by intuition, that Stuart is the killer, but to act on that knowledge goes against her conditioning to never make a muff when he is around (and also when he isn't).

Nevertheless, Marjorie is very nearly spurred into action toward the end of the monologue, when she happens upon evidence so incriminating that not even she can turn a blind eye. In spite of her misgivings around Stuart's slovenliness outside of the home, it seems that he has been very, very clean and meticulous in how he goes about his business. The evidence presented against him in court is largely circumstantial, with no traces of blood being located on his tools or clothing. The only hard forensic evidence appearing to link him directly to the murders is discovered on Tina's fur, which his defense successfully argues could have been accumulated when Tina was let of her leash and allowed to run around the wasteland. (Marjorie confides to the camera that she knows this to be untrue, as Tina has not been spayed and Stuart would never allow her to run free, which further echoes the extreme control he has over Marjorie.) Marjorie, however, is in the process of cleaning Tina's kennel when she discovers that something is clogging up the flow of water from underneath, and pulls out Stuart's missing slacks, which are heavily soiled (presumably with blood). Marjorie finally considers reaching out to the outside world, only to discover that it is already too late; the jury has returned with a verdict, and Stuart has been acquitted. The monologue ends with Marjorie enduring another night of abuse from Stuart, after which she sneaks outside into the yard and returns the slacks to where she found them. The kennel itself is now vacant, for Tina has finally gained entry to the house, thus eradicating the one advantage that Marjorie ever truly held over her four-legged rival. Significantly, when Marjorie comments on the media's joyous coverage of Stuart's acquittal, she focuses with particular disdain on Tina's appearance in the press photo ("dog licking his face, ears up, paws on his shoulder, loving every minute of it"). Stuart and Tina are indeed the very epitome of a close-knit, loving couple and, terrified though Marjorie is of the prospect of having to resume her everyday life with Stuart, her long-standing jealousy at not getting to share all the same privileges as Tina cannot help but rear its head. Perhaps she would feel more comfortable with the arrangement if her murderous husband were as doting toward her as he is to his dog.

At the very end, we find Marjorie gazing longingly into the outside world for the first time, having spent the entirety of the monologue attempting to shut it out in all its assorted intrusions. Early on, she has to contend with encroachers in the form of a neighbour who repeatedly complains to her about Tina's barking and Stuart's mother, whom Marjorie suspects deliberately scatters cigarette ash all over the shop just to annoy her. Later, as Stuart becomes the focus of police and media attention, Marjorie likewise finds her own personal space under constant siege. We end up questioning what Marjorie's reluctance to speak out reveals more of - her being cowed by Stuart, or her distrust of the outside world. Marjorie, it seems, does not have much of a life outside of the house. She mentions, briefly, that she used to work as a teacher, and at one point expresses a desire to visit the local library, but there are apparently no friends or social activities to speak of (the closest she comes is in recounting the experience of being spat at by a member of the public while grocery shopping after Stuart's arrest). Perhaps this is indicative of the level of control that Stuart exerts over her, or alternatively of Marjorie's naive assumption that she is ultimately safer in sticking with what is familiar, an assumption that leaves her susceptible to self-willed entrapment (it is notable that, whereas Wilfred and Rosemary moved through a variety of different locations in their respective monologues, Marjorie is never seen outside her kitchen or living room). At one point, reflecting on one of Stuart's particularly loud and aggressive sexual outbursts, Marjorie thinks of the neighbours and observes, "It's a blessing we're detached." The double entendre is unmissable, but this is also reflective of Marjorie's preference for isolation. (The notion of a detached house signifying an indifferent community is evoked again in "Nights In The Gardens of Spain" in one of Rosemary's opening comments: "They're mostly detached houses, and you never even hear shouting.") She wishes to keep the world and its associated filth, literal and figurative, at bay, but by the end of the monologue seems ready to accept that dark unknown as her means of salvation, only to find that it has turned its back on her. The press have disappeared, leaving only a broken chair in the middle of the street. Returning the slacks to the kennel is of course a futile attempt to restore everything to its perceived proper place, not least her own willful ignorance, but it is here that Marjorie momentarily regards the outside world in more picturesque terms than before ("It's a bit moonlighty"). It's as if she feels a newfound affinity for the outside world, now that her eyes are finally wide open to the horrors that await her back inside the house. The very first time I saw "The Outside Dog", I was half-expecting Marjorie to crawl inside Tina's kennel and assume her new place there, having decided that she's better off leaving Stuart and Tina to their domestic wilderness, but nothing quite so ludicrous occurs. Instead, Marjorie seems to accept her complete powerlessness in the matter - she retreats back into the house and receives another outburst from Stuart.

The lingering question at the end of the monologue concerns what life will look like for Marjorie and Stuart going forward. Will things carry on much as they did before, the only alteration being that Tina now gets to reside inside the house? Will Stuart go out and kill again, or will he decide against running the risk of being recaptured, and instead direct all of his bestial energies at Marjorie every night? Is there the possibility that Stuart might even slaughter Marjorie in order to ensure her silence? (Marjorie has, perhaps unwisely, revealed to Stuart that she cleaned Tina's kennel in his absence.) The suggestion is teased at the beginning of the final sequence, when Marjorie recounts being informed by a member of the press that, "The paper's got a lot of money invested in you," to which she responds, forebodingly, "That's your funeral". And Stuart certainly isn't fooled by Marjorie's insistence that she wasn't surprised by the verdict. When quizzed by Stuart as to what she thinks, she gives only the non-committal answer of, "I don't know, do I?", to which Stuart responds, "You bloody better know." I suspect, though, that the moment in which Stuart was most tempted to kill Marjorie had already occurred much earlier on in the monologue, when Marjorie mentions that Stuart took her out in the van to an unknown location (identified, ominously, as "somewhere") and asked her point blank if she suspected him of being the killer. Marjorie's reasonably casual recollection suggests that not even she was fully aware of the danger she was in at the time. This is echoed in their exchange at the end of the monologue, when Stuart mocks the likening of Marjorie to his mother (who, unlike Marjorie, did not conceal her suspicions from the police). Stuart has, I suspect, known all along that Marjorie is attuned to what's going on, but is confident that he has her under his complete control. Life for himself and Marjorie will be defined by the sordid business of knowing, and knowing that the other knows, with Stuart, if not actually killing Marjorie, then certainly stifling the last remaining vitality from her. (Rosemary ends up in a very similar position at the end of "Nights In The Gardens of Spain"; in her case, I do not believe that Henry presents any risk of physical harm to her, but she nevertheless has to live with the knowledge that he too has a few disturbing secrets in his own history, and Henry, we suspect, is not oblivious to Rosemary's knowing.) It is a terribly unsettling point at which to leave our character. But you can always remedy by following it up with a viewing of "Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet". That one should cheer you right up.

* Although what the joke is anybody's guess.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Charly and The Giddy Delights of Toytown Techno


1992 saw the rise of a peculiar phenomenon known as "toytown techno", whereby the cartoon tunes of yesteryear were given a modern electronic makeover for consumption by the rave music scene that was on fire at the time. "Charly", a 1991 hit for The Prodigy, is often credited with starting the craze, although we can trace earlier examples still in Mark Summers' 1990 record "Summer's Magic", which gave the theme tune to BBC children's series The Magic Roundabout a particularly funky spin, and novelty dance record "Thunderbirds Are Go!" by FAB feat. MC Parker (also 1990), which sampled music and dialogue from 1960s marionette action series Thunderbirds. But the success of "Charly" certainly gave the green light to a wave of copycat records that plundered artifacts of 1970s childhood for raw sampling material. Not everyone was so thrilled by the sudden desire to get back to Toytown. Dance music magazine Mixmag famously accused "Charly" of "killing rave", with editor Dom Phillips condemning the record as "a million nightmare novelty that countless grinning [Top of The Pops] goons have introduced over the years." The Prodigy responded with the proverbial middle finger, by torching a copy of Mixmag in the video to their 1992 single "Fire". Good call. If Mixmag weren't hip enough to understand the appeal of combining that yearning for a bygone childhood with cutting-edge electronica, then that's probably the best use of their pages. Would these people seriously sooner have lived in a world without Shaft's charming reworking of the Roobarb and Custard theme? The farts. But whatever its merits, it was not a phenomenon built for longevity. By the autumn of 1992, Toytown had all but petered out. It was to prove as exhilarating and ephemeral as childhood itself.

Reflecting on "Summer's Magic", Summers commented that the success of toytown techno was linked to the fact that childhood innocence and rave hedonism were not, in practice, all that far removed: “The illegal substances people were taking at raves at the time made them feel happy and light. I suppose when they heard something like Summers Magic, that sense of euphoria comes flooding back, [reminding] them of that bygone age when they were innocent.” With "Charly", though, there was inevitably a more sinister undercurrent, pertaining to the source of the sample, a series of animated public information films produced in 1973 to advise children on various aspects of everyday safety. The track incorporated audio of what was supposedly a cat meowing (in actuality, disc jockey/comedian Kenny Everett doing his finest cat impersonation), followed by the voice of a child working translation duties: "Charley says, always tell your mummy before you go off somewhere." In the PIFs, Charley was a wise, if rather accident-prone cat, who would regularly dispense cautionary pointers to his owner, a young boy named Tony (Tony was apparently voiced by the child of somebody who knew the producer; I'm not sure if he's ever been identified by name). The series was structured around the likeably ludicrous premise that Charley's mews were unintelligible to the viewer, but Tony was fully capable of discerning pearls of wisdom in that barrage of feline gibberish. There was a total of six "Charley Says" films in general, never more than a minute in length, with each following one of two formulas - either Charley would fall victim to some kind of mishap and learn a valuable lesson which he then shared with Tony, or Charley would discourage Tony from doing something seriously stupid. In the most infamous of the six, Charley prevented Tony from disappearing with a predatory prowler who attempted to lure him from the safety of the playground with the promise of puppies. Like any PIF, the darkness in the "Charley" series came from the juxtaposition of the horrific with the mundane, although the stranger installment particularly stands out for conveying a sense of childhood innocence on a knife edge. The evocation of this sensation in the Prodigy track struck a nerve with some listeners, including Jeremy J. Beadle (no, not that Jeremy Beadle), author of the 1993 book Will Pop Eat Itself?: Pop Music in the Soundbite Era, who notes that, "by an unpleasant quirk of coincidence (at least one hopes it was), "Charly" made a remarkably high chart debut (Number 9) in mid-August, the week after a series of grisly child abductions and murders had figured in the headlines." (p.214) In actuality, though, the sample used in the Prodigy track came not from Tony's brush with a suspicious-sounding stranger, but from by far the least threatening PIF in the series, in which Tony is again tempted to go astray, not by an ominous interloper, but by a couple of perfectly benign peers, Vera and Dave, who invite him to join them on a picnic. The fly in the ointment here is Charley's reminder that Tony should never up and leave without first telling his mother where he is going. This ends up throwing a wrench into Tony's plans, for it takes him so long to attract his distracted mother's attentions that Vera and Dave eventually decide that he's not coming and go on their way, whereupon his mother compensates by taking Tony and Charley on a picnic with her instead. The PIF ends with Tony addressing the viewer with the following statement:

"Charley says, always tell your mummy before you go off somewhere, so she knows who you are with."

This is the most genial of all the "Charley" films, as Tony and Charley are not implied to be in any danger at any point. The kind of threat that Tony unwittingly came up against in the "Strangers" PIF very faintly rears its head in Tony's closing words, but from a safe enough distance. Telling your mother where you are going is a good idea, presumably so that she can prevent you from wandering off with anyone inappropriate (especially if you don't have a talking cat to act as your guardian). Alternatively, the lesson could be interpreted as being more for the mother's benefit than Tony's own, so that she doesn't freak out when she realises that Tony is missing. There is perhaps also an implicit, unintentional message to be gleaned from this scenario by the more rebellious viewer - namely, that adherence to authority comes at the expense of your own personal enjoyment. It's because Tony and Charley follow the rules that they don't get to go on a picnic with Vera and Dave, and while a picnic with Mummy is accepted as an excellent alternative, the film does arguably end up reinforcing the idea that the "correct" way to do anything is always under the watchful eye of authority. There is an obvious subversion on this very theme in the Prodigy's use of the sample (which excises the final part of Tony's statement, thus diminishing the closing assurance of safety), raves representing the kind of forbidden venue that Mummy probably doesn't want to hear you're going off to. The suggestion of darkness and danger, conjured up by the use of the PIF, is in this context thrilling, while the sonic strangeness of Charley's disembodied meows adds to the record's sinister ambience, so that Charley, the supposed voice of wisdom and adversary of suspicious strangers, here seems unnervingly alien; familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The track transforms the sample into an ironic celebration of those rebellious souls who have evaded parental (or otherwise) authority and embraced the wilderness. In a total inversion on the intention behind the "Charley" films, the track seems entirely in love with the seductive nature of danger (a mood reflected in the record cover to "Charly", which showed a facial close-up of a very different, considerably less benevolent-looking cat, baring its teeth in what looks like an almost demonically malevolent smile). To that end, it fulfills a similar function as Bam Bam's amazingly nightmarish 1988 acid house track "Where's Your Child?", which I can only assume was conceived in response to those "Do You Know Where Your Children Are?" PSAs that were commonplace in US television throughout the 1980s.


The subversiveness does not stop there, however, as there is an additional joke in the track's appropriation of all these repeated references to a character named Charley, "Charlie" being a common street name for cocaine. This is a joke that Beadle is wise to, and finds wholly objectionable: "The use of the "Charly" sample was simply a clever way of advertising what the raves at which the record was so heavily featured were really about." Rave records were hardly shy about flaunting their association with recreational drugs culture (to a point that all but reached self-parody a year after "Charly", when The Shamen delivered a highly commercial, controversy-baiting track in which they sung the praises of an individual with the ridiculously unsubtle pun-tastic moniker of "Ebeneezer Goode"). In "Charly", the drug and and the (indirect) voice of authority are blended to a seemingly incongruous degree, which is perhaps made all the more unnerving for the fact that it is conveyed through the voice of an actual child (one presumably as naive as Tony as to the true nature of the dangers he was talking about). The combination of drug and authority suggests usurpation; the drug becomes the new voice of wisdom, its suggestion that we always keep Mummy up to speed what we are doing being immediately followed by an invisible wink. The voice of Tony, meanwhile, suggests both the imperiled childhood innocence present in the original PIFs, and a sort of smirking, child-like love of testing one's boundaries. The marriage of drugs culture and kids' entertainment at first glance seems at odds, but it is perhaps an entirely appropriate and affectionate acknowledgement of the incredibly off-the-wall nature of such entertainment. After all, what kind of drugs would you have to be on to think that your cat was lecturing you about stranger danger?

(As a side-note, there are sometimes even benefits to not being in on the joke where these sample-heavy dance records are concerned. I used to think that the man ranting the titular phrase throughout Praga Khan's "Injected With A Poison" had THE COOLEST VOICE EVER, but it turns out that he's a televangelist. Bummer.)

This was a marriage that permeated Toytown Techno at every turning, from the suggestive title of Urban Hype's "Trip To Trumpton" to the music video to "Sesame's Treet" by Smart E's, which included a run-down of the alphabet in which the letter E was pointedly absent (although very much visible in the name of the act). In the case of "Summer Magic", the track wasn't so much subverting the intentions behind the source of its sample so much as tapping into the pre-existing lore surrounding the characters. It certainly didn't require the creation of a quirky rave record to draw an association in the public's mind between The Magic Roundabout and drugs use. Anybody with even the vaguest knowledge of old-school BBC children's programming knows that The Magic Roundabout was really the UK retooling of a French series, Le Manège enchanté. When the BBC acquired the series in 1965 they chose, for whatever reason, not to translate directly from the French original, but to use the footage as the basis for their own original scripts and stories (similar to what Saban Entertainment did with Samurai Pizza Cats). The series gained a cult following among adult viewers, and a popular fan theory persisted that the English dub had deliberately reinterpreted the series as a commentary on the contemporary drugs culture, with each character representing a different kind of drugs user. Dylan, the rabbit, was obviously a stoner, but I've heard mixed interpretations as to what Dougal's sugar cube addiction was intended to signify.


As an epilogue, Charley did make a small comeback in 2014, when Electrical Safety First released two new films featuring Charley and Tony, exploring different aspects of electrical safety around the home. The revival made the puzzling decision, however, to have Tony voiced not by an actual child, but by TV personality David Walliams, which changes the tone of the films significantly (Walliams also provided the voice of Charley - Everett, sadly, died in 1995, although I'm not sure what prevented them from using archived audio to recreate the role). The result is an unmistakably adult voice disturbing the sense of childhood naivety that the originals pinned down so hauntingly. As such, it's rather hard to distinguish between the new revived Charley and the glut of online parodies that were fairly common in the 2000s (there was one in particular that made the rounds in the mid-00s, a re-dubbed version of the "Strangers" PIF narrated from the playground predator's point of view, in which we discovered that he at least had good taste in naming his dogs, and which now seems to have vanished without trace). As they say, you can't go home again. Every now and then, though, perhaps you can answer the seductive call of Toytown as it beckons you from off in the distance.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (Pop Will Eat Itself)


If you prefer your aerophobic anthems to be up to their ears in ghoulish humor (assuming that mordant religious chant at the end of "The Wreck of The Fairchild" didn't go far enough for you), then "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" a track from Cure for Sanity, the third album by Stourbridge-based alternative band Pop Will Eat Itself (aka PWEI), might be the route to go. PWEI were pioneers of a subgenre of music known as "grebo", which incorporated punk rock with elements of hip-hop and the sampledelic electronic dance records enjoying their heyday at the time (eg: "Beat Dis" by Bomb The Bass). The movement at one point seemed set to lead the way for British alternative rock acts as we entered the 1990s, but was supplanted by that evil little thing known as Britpop. This track was so named for the Twilight Zone episode depicting William Shatner's one-man battle with the aerophobic's most iconic nemesis, the gremlin on the wing that only they can see (PWEI's fixation with the classic Rod Serling series was one of their familiar running gags - a previous release, "Def. Con. One", had sampled the theme tune, and parts of Serling's narration). Set to an extract from Beastie Boys' "Shake Your Rump", it offers a deep, darkly comic dive through the paranoia of an aerophobic having to confront his worst terrors, while being met with the hollow assurances that "you're safer in the air than on the ground." He doesn't encounter anything resembling the supernatural entity that Shatner (and John Lithgow, in the story's big screen equivalent) were forced to do combat with, but his experience up in the air is still pretty stomach-churning.

"Nightmare", on Cure for Sanity, is preceded by a short track entitled "Medicine Man Speak With Forked Tongue", containing what I assume to be a sample from a self-help cassette about overcoming aerophobia. An assuasive voice, atop a ticking metronome, offers repeated insistence that, "You can fly without fear, you will fly without fear, you are determined to fly without fear!" However, the track title (an inversion on the Native American proverb, "white man speak with forked tongue") casts doubt on the benevolence of the words in question. The voice of authority, it is intimated, is not to be trusted, the mantra less a call to self-empowerment than a despotic command, haranguing us into a dangerous situation against our will. So when we segue into the succeeding track and are greeted by another, more openly malevolent authoritative voice, assuring us that, "What you're looking at could be the end of a particularly terrifying nightmare...it isn't - it's the beginning!" (yet another direct reference to the titular Twilight Zone adventure), the effect is hair-raising, but we were kind of expecting the ambush.

A general distrust of authority, and the voices assuring us that all is well while everything spirals out of control, runs all throughout the track. Here, those voices are comically represented by soundbites from various Hollywood action blockbusters, which by their very nature suggest giddy adrenaline rushes and spectacular calamities. The suspiciously buoyant voice that instructs us to "Fasten your seat-belt" and "enjoy the ride", recalls Arnold Schwarzenegger's encounter with automated cabbie "Johnny Cab" from Total Recall (1990), whose mindless hospitality drove us deep into the uncanny valley, and resulted, inevitably, in a fiery explosion in which Johnny's plastic smile was eerily obliterated. Elsewhere, we hear the incongruously calming voice of the computer from Aliens (1986), issuing a dire warning. The lyrics, meanwhile, wittily construct the in-flight experience as a surreal nightmare, in which - if you pay attention - nothing out of the ordinary actually happens. The horrors of the protagonist's imagination ("This is no joke, we could go up in smoke, or plummet to the ground as the g-force pulls us down") are markedly worse than the reality, in which a bout of turbulence causes him to become nauseous. Nevertheless, his discomfort is emphasised with such lurid ferocity that we can even buy into his paranoid suspicions that his fellow passengers are reveling in his anxiety. It feels as if we are ascending into a kind of Hell up in the skies, which further accentuates the idea of everything being tortuously upside down; the sensation of being in profoundly unnatural circumstances that air travel generates. We also have the double meaning of the statement, "throw a seven in the air and out go your lights". "Throw a seven" can alternatively mean to die or to vomit (an interchangeable meaning I have exploited myself in the past) - either works in this particular scenario, which plays into the phrase's origins, denoting a losing throw in a game of craps, and underlining the protagonist's view that air travel is a dicey business that could alternatively result in either outcome. PWEI also throw in a sly reference to contemporary rave act A Homeboy, A Hippie and A Funki Dredd, best known for their 1990 hit "Total Confusion", with the lyrics "Far out, this dread ain't funky!"

The track reaches its grotesquely hilarious peak as we near the climax, when a particularly absurd (and abrasive) sample - "If I ever get my hands on the fucking son of a bitch who built that fucking plane I'll rip his goddamn fucking face off!" - plucks us from the claustrophobic nightmare and into the territory of a full-fledged cartoon (it is, in fact, from a cartoon, a 1975 French/Belgian adult animation called Tarzoon: Shame of The Jungle; the vocal, from the English-language dub of the film, was supplied by voice-artist Adolph Caesar, who also narrated a number of theatrical trailers). Here, the dreaded outcome of the aerial journey - the possibility of the malfunctioning plane crashing to the ground - is represented in the realm of madcap farce, with the occupant growling his ill intent toward the plane's creator after the calamity has occurred. A ludicrous reprieve from all the tension, or an indication that our in-flight ordeal has reached even more dizzying heights, the cartoon soundbite being the logical progression from those action movie extracts into something all the more eye-poppingly caricatural? One things that's never confirmed is if our protagonist lands safely; as the song closes, he's still trapped in his junk metal nightmare, so for all we know he just keeps on ascending into his asphyxiating daze, discovering that it only gets stranger the higher up he gets. Maybe that's even a good thing. Because apparently it's worse down on the ground, although PWEI leave the reasoning for that to our own irrational ideation.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

The Wreck of The Fairchild (aka Some Fruit Are Sweet And Some Are Poison)


As we saw from Marge Simpson's hair-raising encounters with air transportation, the case of the Andes Flight 571 disaster represents the very pinnacle of an aerophobic's worst fears. The one thing more purely nightmarish than the thought of hurtling to your doom in a malfunctioning aircraft would be surviving such an experience and finding yourself stranded atop some god-forsaken mountain, gnawing on a hunk of your companion-cum-sustenance, whilst looking up at the skies from whence you fell in the forlorn hope of spying the rescue mission that isn't coming. One prominent aerophobic with whom the story struck a particular nerve was English synth musician Thomas Morgan Robertson, better known as Thomas Dolby, who used it as the basis for one of the tracks on his 1982 debut album The Golden Age of Wireless, although unless you grabbed the album in its earliest incarnation then odds are that it passed you by. "The Wreck of The Fairchild" had the privilege of kicking off Side B on the original UK release of the album, but was later jettisoned from the US release, among other alterations - an unfortunate loss, as not only was "The Wreck of The Fairchild" designed to segue directly into the following track, "Airwaves", it meant that American audiences missed out on the most profoundly sinister moment of Dolby's initial output. The track was also sadly excised from subsequent UK releases of the album, including its first CD release in 1983, but was finally restored for the special edition in 2009. In the sleeve notes for this edition, Dolby describes the genesis of this much-mistreated track: "I'd been reading Peirs Paul Reid's book Alive about a rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes, and they ended up eating each other." Dolby's description is admittedly a trifle misleading - if you didn't know the story, then you might assume that the survivors of the Flight 571 crash were murdering one another for food, which was not the case, as they only ate the bodies of those who had already died. In "The Wreck of The Fairchild", the cannibalism is referenced only indirectly, and the bulk of the track consists of a dramatised communication between the pilot of Flight 571 and a military base, as the plane hits dire straits, and his request for an emergency landing is denied.

"Wreck" serves in some respects as a counterpoint to the album's opening track, "Flying North", in which Dolby ruminates more explicitly on the discomforts of air travel. In the aforementioned sleeve notes of the 2009 edition, Dolby describes how the track was indebted to his personal fear of flying, although he insists that his was not your common or garden aerophobia: "Not the usual one that the plane would fall out of the sky, that didn't worry me. I was concerned that we would fly so high we'd break free of the Earth's atmosphere and zoom off into space. I'd look up into the dark blue and picture us drifting silently off into orbit." Nevertheless, the only hint of genuine terror in "Flying North" is in the lyric, "Up goes the useless prayer"; overall, it's a fairly subdued commentary on the simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming experience of being jetted from one dreary airport lounge to the next. It captures not only the solitude and alienation of our weary traveller, but also the allure of the dislocation, and the extent to which the protaginist is addicted to it without fully understanding why - they claim that they are "drawn in like a moth". The song suggests that there is a seductive quality to the state of being perpetually unsettled, as if chasing something on an instinctive level.

By contrast, "Wreck" relates a catastrophic vision of air travel gone fatally wrong, although it does not make its own meaning quite so explicit. The greatest clue is in the track title, which refers to the model of plane carrying those ill-fated passengers across the Andes (it is also, Dolby tells us in the sleeve notes, a "rare and famous valve limiter which, while warming up, generates a terrific distorted radio sound"). To get the full benefit of this track it helps if you a) know the basic background details to the Flight 571 crash and b) understand Spanish, or at least have a translation to hand. Fortunately, Dolby has provided a translation of the dialogue heard throughout "Wreck" (the vocals for which were supplied by a retired Argentinean pilot from whom Dolby had purchased a used car) on his official website. As per Dolby's translation, this is what we're hearing throughout the track:

WZ: "Whiskey Zulu to Tower, aircraft in difficulty, request immediate permission to land, over!"
WZ: "Whiskey Zulu to Tower, trying to level up, zero visibility, engine not responding, over!"
WZ: "Calling Base, repeat, 15 minutes of fuel remaining, emergency, emergency!"
Tower: "Base Control to Whiskey Zulu, permission denied, permission denied, over and out."
WZ: "Engine failure, Engine failure, engine one down, please..."
Tower: "Base Control to Whiskey Zulu, the military airport... permission denied"
WZ: "Undercarriage (not altitude?!) too low, I don't think we can make it, I don't think we can make it!!"
Tower: "Control to Whiskey Zulu, slow down, slow down"
WZ: "Whiskey Zulu to Tower...$&%/...gk&$/&ls... radar not working"
Tower: "I repeat., one, two, three... meg.. 123 FM MegaHertz, MegaHertz"

"Wreck" is a tale of technological disaster, but like many tracks on The Golden Age of Wireless it is also about communication. The dialogue we hear represents the final moments of contact between the occupants of Flight 571 and the wider world before the plane went down and the world became inaccessible to the crash survivors. If we are not well-versed enough in Spanish to comprehend the exact words being exchanged (although the appearance of the NATO phonetic alphabet provides a momentary connection) then the language barrier only adds to our sense of discombobulation. There are enough clues that this is not a routine exchange between pilot and air traffic control - the ominous seven second silence (an eternity in pop song time) following the initial transmission and the frantic ska-influenced instrumentals convey a definite air of danger. We feel the perturbation of being caught up in the middle of a situation in which something is blatantly not right, but being unable to comprehend the precise nature of the problem.

There can, nevertheless, be little confusion as to what is being uttered at the end of the track, when the radio exchange has long ceased and multiple voices are heard chanting: "En el nombre del padre, y del hijo y del espíritu santo, Amén", or "In the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit, Amen." Coming out of the implied disaster, this might bring us back to the "useless prayer" cited in "Flying North", although in this case the prayer is anything but useless. To those familiar with the details of the Andes crash, it carries a disturbing significance, for it indicates that the most notorious aspect of this story - the cannibalism - is currently unfolding on that desolate mountain top. The survivors, who were Roman Catholic, were so (understandably) repulsed by the prospect of having to eat the flesh of their former companions that the only way they could overcome their revulsion was to rationalise the process as a kind of Eucharist. (Meanwhile, Dolby's vocals appear only briefly, providing us with the track's only English-language lyrics: "Some fruit are sweet and some are poision". I initially assumed that this, too, was a coded reference to cannibalism - perhaps even a morbid play on the proverb "one man's meat is another man's poison" - but it transpires that this line was all that remains, lyric-wise, of the track's former incarnation as a more conventional pop song, "Sale of The Centry", which is included as a bonus on the 2009 special edition).

Both "Wreck" and "Flying North" are indicative of the album's overall mixed perspective on technology. Dolby seems at once optimistic but also alienated with so many whirring airplane propellers and buzzing radio transmitters never more than a stone's throw away, and "The Golden Age of Wireless" plays like a concept album about the paradoxes of living in a world that is more connected than it has ever been but also curiously at odds. Some commentators identify a wartime theme across the album, even if it's not always as prominently felt as in the track "One of Our Submarines" (featured on the 2009 release as a bonus track, although it was included in previous US releases of the album). Joseph Stannard, in his Drowned In Sound review, observes that: "the songs are sort of about relationships in the face of something happening on a world level...a lot of them are very much about the extra weight that's added to emotional feeling in the context of wartime." A general sense of displacement runs throughout the album, making it unclear if Dolby is looking back to the world wars of yesteryear or to a fictitious one from a parallel universe. Ted Mills, on We Are The Mutants, responds to Dolby's own suggestion that the album represents a glimpse into an alternate Britain under Nazi control with the observation that: " I’ve never considered The Golden Age of Wireless...to be post-apocalyptic...The “copper cables all rust in the acid rains” from “Airwaves” didn’t make me think of a dystopian wasteland—it reminded me of pulling into Liverpool Street Station." Emily Bick of The Quietus argues that the appeal of Dolby is in the beguiling fashion in which he juxtaposes the cataclysmic with the wistful and the banal, noting that, "something goes wrong in almost every song. Plane crashes, traffic jams, lost signals, missed connections, acid rain…these themes sit with lyrics about everyday stuff like Coldrex and pylons, film posters, junk food and vague - but powerful - feelings of romantic loss." The final track on the album, "Cloudburst at Shingle Street", strikes me as having the most obviously post-apocalyptic vibe, although it is conversely the most purely euphoric of the lot; to my mind, it describes the experience of a man reconnecting with the world (this time not via technology, but through a direct encounter with the natural world) having concealed himself away in a bomb shelter (either literal or metaphorical) for an extensive period of time. The location Shingle Street, a coastal hamlet in the English county of Suffolk, carries its own connotations, being the site of a reputed (and disputed) attempted German invasion in World War II, and also personal significance for Dolby, who would regularly visit the beach at Shingle Street, and in the 2009 sleeve notes describes his fascination with the assorted "strange concrete shapes left over from the world wars" that littered the sands. Above all, "Cloudburst" speaks of the indifference of nature toward human exertion; the world keeps on turning long after the devastation has occurred, and this is something the protagonist, the survivor of an unspecified conflict, learns to embrace as he traverses his own war-scarred landscape (literal or metaphorical).

"Wreck of The Fairchild" is likewise a powerful track, in part because it is suggestive of its own miniature apocalypse. We catch the world just as everything is falling to pieces, and while we miss out on the critical moment of destruction, we are party to the aftermath, in which the survivors, deprived of domestic and technological luxuries, are forced to make use of the extremely meagre resources at their disposal. There is, nevertheless, a twisted optimism to its macabre conclusion; it presents a scenario in which technology is failing but the basic human drive for survival endures. The mixture of religiosity and cannibalism is unsettling, for it has associations with ritual sacrifice, but it represents a connection, a means by which the participants are able to hold together as a community, acknowledging their indebtment to and physical intimacy with the dead comrades they are currently consuming, and asserting their place within the wider world from which they are seemingly disconnected. It is perhaps a glimpse into a future world in which civilisation has crumbled and humankind exists in tiny, self-contained pockets, banding together for the common cause of survival. As the opening track to Side B, "Wreck" is effectively bookended with "Cloudburst" in exploring the tension and subsequently the catharsis in the notion of the world coming apart at the seams. Both are essentially redemptive stories of man co-existing with the elements following some prior, dislocating trauma; one achieves its redemption by plunging us, somewhat paradoxically, into full-blown nightmare territory, while the other revels in the anticipation of physical and emotional cleansing. In both cases, though, the tracks convey a common aspiration, which is to navigate our way out from the smoking wreckage and continue forward, long after the damage has been dealt.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Hero (aka Where Have All The Good Men Gone And Where Are All The Gods?)


Note: This entry was written for the Disaster Blogathon being hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and Dubsism from 10th - 12th June.

Also, spoilers.

So, last time we touched on that sequence in the Simpsons episode "Fear of Flying" where Homer attempts to assist Marge in overcoming her titular phobia by renting a series of VHS titles on the subject of air travel. The titles in question are Hero, Fearless and Alive, and they all have tell-tale plane wrecks on their box art. If you follow Homer's suit then you've got yourself quite the weekend marathon of early 90s flight paranoia, although be warned that the quality of those pictures varies drastically. As I acknowledged in my previous piece, he picked out a real winner with Fearless and an absolute dud with Alive. But what of the third film that falls straight down the middle? Stephen Frears' Hero, or Accidental Hero as it was known in some territories, is a much trickier one for me to categorise because I have something of a love/hate relationship with it. In theory, I should be every bit as scathing toward it as I am Alive, since in the end I have to consider it a failure. It's a film that bites off way more than it can chew, simply because its teeth are not sharp enough, and spews out its various intriguing ideas and narrative developments in an unsightly, salivary mess. Hero frustrates the hell out of me, but there's something about its obnoxious little world that I find inexplicably captivating. It's an enjoyable film, for the most part, with a number of good key ingredients, and an engrossing set-up, even if it doesn't yield adequate solutions to any of the issues it raises.

What Alive, Fearless and Hero all have in common is that their respective in-flight catastrophe occurs early in the running and the bulk of the picture is taken up by examining some aspect of the longer-term consequences. Whereas Alive is a raw tale of survival at all costs, Hero is superficially closer to Fearless, in that it's more interested in the emotional fall-out of this kind of deeply traumatic experience among people attempting to resume their day-to-day lives and discovering, for one reason or another, that things can never go back to the way they were. Hero, though, does so from a more jocose angle than Fearless, its pet interest being in the nature of heroism, and the stark discrepancy that exists between the real individual who just so happened to pull off an extraordinary act, and the idealised hero who exists only in the public mind and in media sensationalism. Hero takes its inspiration from the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges, most notably Hail The Conquering Hero (1944), in which an army reject is mistaken for a war hero on returning to his hometown, to tell a more modern story of misguided lionisation. In the process, it raises a plethora of fascinating questions. Do terrible events bring out both the best and worst in our human nature? If so, then could we be either the hero or the villain of the story if you happened to catch us at the right time on any given day? Or is it the case that humans are fundamentally bastards, and that whatever good deeds we might be capable of are inevitably balanced out by our innumerable moments of weakness? For as long as it entertains the latter position, Hero is a delectable ride. It's at its strongest where it's at its most sour, and for the first fifty minutes or so shows plenty of promise, until it develops a lethal appetite for sugar and all goodwill goes out the window. In the end, I'm not sure what point Hero is trying to make and I'm not convinced that Hero knows either.

The hero of Hero is one Bernie LaPlante (Dustin Hoffman), who at first glance appears to possess very few traits of the archetypal chevalier. Bernie is deeply cynical and embittered about the human condition and prefers to spend most of his time hiding under a proverbial rock, although his penchant for pick-pocketing credit cards occasionally brings him under legal scrutiny. As we open the film, we find Bernie in court, having just received a conviction for receiving stolen goods, and the likelihood of a prison term when he returns next week for sentencing. This couldn't have come at a worse time for Bernie, who is in the process of attempting to reconnect with his ten-year-old son Joey (James Madio), whom Bernie walked out on some years ago. Bernie is a scavenger, an opportunist who preys off of other people's moments of weakness, although he is self-aware enough to recognise his own - early on in the film, he gives a remorseful speech to one of the few individuals willing to lend him a sympathetic ear, Chick the bartender (Tom Arnold), about how he didn't grow into the great individual he assumed he would he would do as a child. At the top of Bernie's regrets is his failure to provide for his son, either financially or as a role model.

As it turns out, Bernie's shrinking, disheveled exterior conceals an abundance of physical courage, something he demonstrates when he witnesses a plane crash while driving along an empty road outside Chicago, and valiantly (if gracelessly) approaches the scene of the accident and opens the emergency door, allowing most of the passengers to escape the burning aircraft. A boy pleads with him to go inside for his father, who was knocked unconscious and left behind; Bernie reluctantly does so, and ends up saving several more passengers who were trapped within the wreckage - among them, Gayle Gayley (Geena Davis), an ambitious young TV reporter hot off receiving her award for Excellence In The Pursuit of Truth. Although Bernie is clearly a tremendous man, he is far from your ideal hero - in part because he is a felon, and his heroism does not exactly signify redemption for his history of misdeeds, as demonstrated when he swipes Gayley's purse while in the process of hoisting her to safety. There's also the generally uncouth manner in which he conducts himself while roaming the wreckage for additional casualties, hurling various curse words at his rescuees, and at one point contemplating leaving one man to his death because he isn't the man he came in for. This sequence is one of the film's most successful, for it's in that moment of gut-wrenching crisis that Hero seems quite happy to be as thoroughly mordant and unromantic about its subject matter as possible. Saving people, it posits, can really be a pain in the neck, but on the flip side, a tragedy can be an opportunity for personal gain, signified not only in Bernie's sticky fingers, but in Gayley's howls of territorial rage as she is loaded into an ambulance: "This is my story! I did the research!" Despite saving numerous lives, Bernie considers himself a failure, because he was unable to locate and rescue the father of the child who originally implored him for aid (unbeknownst to him, the man in question had regained consciousness and left under his own steam). Rather than face the child he assumes he has let down, Bernie chooses to slink off discreetly into the night, as befits his general style, with a pocket of ill-gotten plastic and only one of his $100 shoes. The public is left in awe at the bravery of this mysterious man, and Gayley spearheads a media campaign to identity him, their only lead being a blurred video image and the shoe he left behind.


Bernie is not an amazingly endearing character, but his assorted contradictions make him engagingly enigmatic. Is he a bastard with a hidden heart of gold? Is he simply doing what anybody would have done under the circumstances, confronted by the plight of his fellow humans? Or is there something special about Bernie that makes him cut out for heroism, however ill-mannered? Could it even be Bernie's more inhuman qualities - his more feral, animalistic side, and his tendencies toward reckless plundering - that makes him better suited to handling wild situations that most people, in their prosaic, everyday existences, would be utterly thrown by? Is, as one character suggests, there a fine, fine line between the kind of heroism Bernie exhibits and unbridled stupidity? These are all juicy enough questions, but the film ducks out of exploring them in any particularly substantial depth. For the plot thickens, but ultimately falters when Bernie crosses paths with drifter John Bubber (Andy Garcia), a fellow societal outcast who figures out how to exploit the situation to his advantage. Hearing Bernie's story, and acquiring his remaining shoe, he manages to pass himself off as the so-called "Angel of Flight 104", securing the $1 million reward and the adoration of the public. Bubber's arc is, unfortunately, the film's major weak link. Whereas Bernie is a miserable sleazebag, Bubber is truly detestable. He has a comprehensible enough motive for wanting to claim the glory as his own (he wants to be noticed and be treated as a valid human being, for a change), yet the film seems curiously oblivious to just how mawkishly, odiously manipulative his character is. It aspires to have it both ways, using Bubber to satirise hero worship and the creation of celebrity while equally imparting that he is somehow worthy of his lionised status, because he is a terrific and wonderful person in spite of his gargantuan exploitation of Bernie's confidence and the public's trust. And the film certainly has no interest in exposing the hypocrisies of the public's reaction to Bubber (eg: the general disdain with which they treat the homeless, despite reveling in the fuzzies of his rags to riches story), instead suggesting that he genuinely is inspiring them to be better people, while showing little in the way of evidence. It's at this point that Hero suddenly seems terribly confused about its own agenda, and we catch it swallowing its own tail-end in sheer disorientation.

Hero has fun sending up the media's manufacturing and exploitation of celebrity, notably in a sequence promoting an upcoming TV dramatisation of events in which all of the people involved are slated to be playing themselves, an idea that feels as if it should have been taken a whole lot further than it actually is. In practice, the dramatisation amounts to disappointingly little, other than providing the first point in which Gayley becomes even vaguely aware of the discrepancy between the uncouth gentleman who hustled her out of the plane and the heavily romanticised Bubber. There are times when Hero fully embraces the goofiness of the culture it's lampooning, such as when a small girl approaches Bubber asking him to sign her Bubber doll, and other times when details of Bubber's personal history (eg: his war record in Vietnam) seem so perfectly aligned with the kind of person the public wants to have rescued them from a burning plane that the man's existence plays like one great cosmic joke at Bernie's expense. And then there are times when the film leans dangerously toward mistaking the kinds of highly public displays of virtue it ought to be skewering for assurances of genuine virtue. The film's most misjudged plot point involves Bubber making a televised trip to a children's ward (jeez, that's probably the oldest ploy in the book), where he has a nauseating moment delivering a pep talk to a kid in a coma (think about this for a second - he hones in on the one individual in no fit state to object to his using him as a prop in his ongoing publicity campaign). In a more focused film, this could have been tremendously funny (it puts me strongly in mind of that Smashie and Nicey skit where they visit a children's hospital and attempt to bring a child out of his coma by singing the most flagrantly self-congratulatory song about the good work they do for charity). Unfortunately, Hero sees fit to bestow Bubber with genuine powers; the child comes out his coma soon after and the media brands Bubber a miracle worker. Actually, the kid's humdrum non-sequitur upon emerging would appear, beguilingly, to suggest that the whole thing was nothing more than a dumb coincidence, and yet in the climactic sequence Bernie himself (who's been observing Bubber's deception from afar with furious eyes) has decided otherwise, insisting to a despondent Bubber that he actually helped the child, supposedly confirmed by the fact that he actually remembered the kid's name (Alan). Oh yes, that's the other misjudged thing about Bubber. The film's climax requires him to have a crisis of confidence that compels him to step out onto a window ledge and consider hurling himself off, an act of desperation that feels wholly unmotivated based on everything we've seen. We do get hints that Bubber, for as much as he accepts the media attention, feels guilty and unworthy for his fakery, but I don't buy that he feels so entrapped by his ill-gotten celebrity that he wants out via his own destruction. That too would be an interesting narrative development, but the film simply doesn't do the work to get us there.

Bernie, meanwhile, abhors attention and has no interest in being lauded a hero. He does, however, have use for the $1 million reward that's rightfully his, which would not only cover his legal expenses, but also finally enable him to ensure a decent college education for the son he's been failing his whole life. By the end of the film, Bernie and Bubber have come to an arrangement - Bubber continues to take the credit for Bernie's heroism, on the condition that a cut of the reward money goes to Bernie and Joey, and that Bubber uses his celebrity to pull a few strings with the Chicago courts and convince the judge to suspend his prison sentence. Although the film has by and large lost me at this point, the one aspect of the conclusion I can genuinely get behind - the implication that Bernie walks away scott-free in all regards while Bubber remains ensnared by the obligations of his public profile, having to perpetuate the deception day by day and live up to an idealised version of himself, knowing that all eyes are trailed upon his every move. As Bernie so shrewdly informs him, "Why should you be comfortable? Uncomfortable is what you should be." Sadly, Hero does kind of blow that too, as it remains charitable enough toward Bubber to give him the opportunity to prove that he is capable of genuine heroism. He saves Bernie's life when he nearly slips off the ledge, thus adding more supposed credibility to his final speech about how, deep down inside, we're all heroes, even if we're also predisposed to do crummy things. It's certainly hinted that a critical factor in why the public accepts Bubber's heroism so unquestionably is because he says all the right things and makes them feel good about themselves. As such, it would be a fatal mistake for the film itself to become suckered in by Bubber's ludicrous Hallmark rhetoric, but apparently it does. Hero remains connected enough to its ironic trappings to know that the cost for a closing speech as pandering and mawkish as Bubber's is to follow it up with a sardonic dismissal ("Have you ever heard so much bullshit from somebody who isn't the president?"), a tactic that plays less like an affirmation of the film's satiric underbelly than an audacious attempt to have its cake and eat it.

Hero finds more authenticity in the more muted, contemplative moments in which it reflects not on the nature of heroism, but on the nature of weakness. The idea that the great unifying factor is not our latent capacity for Herculean greatness but the simple fact that we are, none of us, gods, and therefore bound to screw up, is leagues more compelling than any of the feel-good sentiments articulated by Bubber. And the suggestion that the individual humans behind the news stories are inevitably more nuanced and complicated than their media representation lets on is not an amazingly revelatory one, but always worth exploring. Multiple characters struggle with the notion that somebody noble enough to save a woman's life could sink so low as to rob her at the same time, while Bubber tries to make sense of the desperation that compelled him to assume the life of a charlatan. In one scene, Bernie's ex-wife Evelyn, (Joan Cusack) comments that Bernie is at his best in moments of crisis, when he forgets to be Bernie and remembers to be "sort of like a human being"; on the surface, this plays like another facile attempt at rationalising the contradictory elements in Bernie's character, but it becomes infinitely more curious when we consider the film's implicit suggestion that our moments of weakness might be our most prevalent human characteristic. As Chick so delicately observes, we're all assholes.

The question of Bernie's humanity was raised earlier, when Evelyn lambasts Bernie for attempting to mold Joey in his own misanthropic image. When Bernie insists that, "it's a jungle out there", Evelyn suggests that he "go back to jungle". Bernie, clearly, is out of place in the domestic world, despite his efforts to make good with Joey, yet the reference to the jungle hints at ways in which he, in a more metaphorical sense than Bubber, is homeless. If we think back to a sequence toward the start of the film in which Bernie and Joey are seated on a bench at the zoo, watching a tiger pace up and down a harrowingly spartan cage, we might question just what jungle there is for him to go back to. The initial zoo scene is a small moment that nevertheless encapsulates so much about the film's central concerns. The verbal exchange between the father and son - Joey speculates that if Bernie were to step into the tiger cage, it would kill him, with which Bernie does not disagree - speaks of Joey's dented faith in his father's abilities and Bernie's awareness of such. The caged tiger signifies the characters' general fear of entrapment (both Bernie's fear of his pending incarceration and Bubber's later predicament). It also conveys the apparent order of modern living, in which the jungle has been eliminated and the big cats confined to tiny cages, in a manner that is evocative of the meagre barrier that exists between safety and danger. There is also an extent to which we sense that Bernie identifies with the agitated tiger - the magnificence of the beast might signify his unlocked potential, and its languishing outside of its natural habitat his alienation from the world. Joey remains Bernie's sole link to the world of domesticity - at one point, Bernie uses Joey very explicitly to assert his humanity, yelling "I got a kid, you know! I'm a person for Christ's sake!" For much of the film, Bernie's concern for Joey serves as an easy means of bestowing him with humanity - we do have the obvious interpretation that Bernie chooses to enter the wrecked plane because in the pleas of the desperate child he finds himself haunted by the vulnerabilities of his own son. But I think a far more gratifying explanation (and far more so than any of Bubber's insufferable bullshit) would be that Bernie's heroism is motivated, to a large degree, by his misanthropy. Bernie chooses to help his fellow human because he has such great contempt for them, and he knows that they cannot be relied upon to help themselves in a terrible situation. It's this same embittered understanding of how much people suck that also causes him to think nothing of helping himself to their property while he's at it. In the film's closing punchline we find Bernie once again at the zoo with Joey, and confiding in him the truth of the preceding events, before he finds his heroic services in demand once again. A child has (somehow) ended up inside the lions' cage, and with no authorities coming to help Bernie ends up passing his shoes to Joey and making his own down toward the action. We don't get to see it, but he is implied to actually enter the territory of one of those caged big cats - a sign that he has finally become the man his son desires him to be, that he has finally embraced his own magnificent nature or, most likely, that the rest of the world remains so inept and so bound for calamity that Bernie has no means of escaping his begrudging obligation to save them from themselves. Thus, there is an extent to which Bernie remains trapped at the end, but it's an entrapment of the rest of the world's making.

The third major player in all of this is Gayley. She, like Bubber, is a fake, a point illustrated perhaps a little too obviously in an early sequence where she delivers a speech on journalistic integrity to a showroom of colleagues and uses an onion as a prop, causing herself to shed distinctly unemotional tears. Her infatuation with Bubber certainly never seems convincing, and it's hard to say to what extent this is intentional. The film seems only vaguely interested in exploring the extent to which her phoniness blurs into her self-delusion, although Davis imbues her with a vulnerability late in the film as she struggles to deal with the increasingly transparent likelihood that the man for whom she has fallen may not be as wonderful as she first assumed - the realisation that her savoir (whom, until the very end, she still believes to be Bubber) pocketed her purse in the process sends her spiraling off into a ludicrous harangue about how "John Bubber is more of a hero than we ever imagined." Hero also benefits from a handful of entertaining supporting figures. In particular, Chevy Chase and Stephen Toboloswky both give fine comic performances as a couple of media executives who gradually come to realise that Bubber is a phony, but also that their station has backed his supposed heroism for too long to walk away unscathed, and that they, too, are now prisoners of the ongoing deception. Whenever they're on screen, the film pops with all the right levels of screwball energy.


Finally, here's a fun fact. The song "Hero" by Mariah Carey was originally written for this film. The plan was to have Gloria Estefan sing it, only Carey was convinced that the song was too good for this picture and that she should keep it for herself. It's no big loss. No knocks to Carey's song, but that kind of inspirational power ballad most assuredly did not belong in this film and probably would have been the final nail in the coffin from a tonal standpoint. Instead, we get an airy gospel number from Luther Vandross and a choir of children, which at least has the virtue of sounding appropriately goofy.

Marge Rating: Dog and cat wedding. This is arguably the "nicest" of Homer's VHS marathon from an aerophobic perspective, given that, in this particular aerial accident, nobody dies, and the impact itself happens off of screen (we see only Bernie's reaction, which suffices, but possibly betrays that they didn't have the budget to pull off the crash). I suspect those claustrophobic shots of the trapped passengers will still prove highly gut-wrenching to anybody with a pervasive terror of sky-borne disaster, however. And eventually we do get the alluring sight of the aircraft completely erupting into flames.

https://dubsism.com/2020/06/10/the-disaster-blog-a-thon-is-here/

Friday, 5 June 2020

Fear of Flying (aka The Wreck of The Fairchild)


Let's talk about a Simpsons sight gag that I believe merits more appreciation. In Season 6's "Fear of Flying" (2F08), Homer and Marge visit the VHS Village, a video rental store, which advertises itself in its signage as "formerly the Beta Barn". It's a small moment, but one that the format nerd in me absolutely revels in. Oh yes, trust me, this is a far greater deal than Guy Incognito. On the surface, it might register as nothing more than a fleeting reference to the videotape format war that waged across the late 1970s/early-to-mid 1980s, with Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS each competing to determine the future of home media consumption. Springfield's local video library, it seems, backed the losing pony and were forced to concede come the back-end of the 80s, when VHS emerged as the clear victor and most Betamax tapes were earmarked for landfill. Change happened. Yet that vanquished identity represents more than just a basic nod to a cultural curiosity that was fast fading into memory. It signifies as what could have been as much as what was - a cancelled timeline and a possible future that never materialised. By the time "Fear of Flying" debuted, on December 18th 1994, the succeeding decade was almost half-over and enough distance had been created between Betamax's point of relevance and the present day that the VHS Village really should be able to stand on its own. Surely nobody would be asking for the Beta Barn at the dawn of '95? Instead, acknowledgement of the store's former identity continues to linger, an unassuming ode to every potentially revolutionary idea or development that got lost and discarded in the merciless march of time. (Adding to the poignancy, from a modern-day perspective, is the knowledge that the VHS Village would now be defunct in any format.)


For as much as I'm inclined to read into this gag, its presence here may be down to good old-fashioned labor-saving more than anything else. Technically, the first time we encountered it was in Season 3's "Saturdays of Thunder" (which aired three years prior, in November 1991), when Homer and Lisa go to the VHS Village to rent a Happy Little Elves tape (another nod to a cultural phenomenon that was then becoming obsolete). Yet for some reason the exact same gag doesn't resonate even half as hard with me in that episode. It seems starker in 1994, when the Betamax's try at longevity was more of a faded memory. Studying the store exterior as it appears in "Saturdays of Thunder", I wonder if the Betamax reference in "Fear of Flying" was something of a leftover detail as opposed to a calculated choice. Compare the two and you'll note that while they didn't go so far as to reuse the same animation cels from "Saturdays of Thunder", they have basically recycled the exact same mise-en-scene, only with a new lick of paint slapped on everything. In "Saturdays of Thunder", the blue and yellow colour scheme was clearly intended to evoke that of Blockbuster Video, only here the VHS Village has swapped that out for a slightly less shameless mixture of red and beige. The posters on the store window are the same but are obscured so that we can no longer see the titles. The Simpsons' car has been removed, but the two nondescript vehicles are identical, just with different paint jobs. And here's a particularly disturbing detail - the fire hydrant outside the store is yellow! Have Homer and Marge gone to the VHS Village in Shelbyville, per chance?

Still, not only did they retain the Beta Barn sub heading, in revamping the scene they the lettering bigger, bolder and more prominent, as if they really wanted you to notice it this time around. Perhaps this gag is more at home in "Fear of Flying", an episode where the central theme deals with uncomfortable truths and barely suppressed memories that continue to reverberate in the present, no matter how seemingly far-removed by the sands of time. We saw all the way back in Season 1's "Moaning Lisa" that smiling and concealing has been Marge's long-term survival strategy, and in the same episode we also got an inkling of how well that strategy has served her. Here, Marge's lifetime of bottled-up emotion finally reaches breaking point when Homer's latest misadventure earns the family free airline tickets to any location in the contiguous United States and she's forced to confront her aerophobia. Whenever this episode is the subject of discussion, some smart aleck is bound to bring up that the family previously flew in the Season 3 episode "Mr Lisa Goes To Washington", and there we didn't hear a peep out of Marge. And true, that is one heck of a glaring continuity issue, although here it is strongly insinuated that her areophobia is really just a manifestation of a far greater problem, and the form it takes ends up feeling largely arbitrary. It has nothing to do with her father making a living as an airline steward and not a pilot, as she'd been led to believe. The revelation is just dumb, and the episode knows it's dumb, although it does give us a rare glimpse of Clancy Bouvier, a character we'd previously only encountered once. The real underlying source of Marge's problems is...well, take a wild guess. It's an episode that spends a lot of time dancing around the obvious, without getting anywhere in particular, and for that reason it sometimes has a hard time endearing itself to viewers. "Fear of Flying" is definitely one of the more undervalued episodes of Season 6; it has a sad, sour quality that doesn't consistently yield belly laughs, but it's an interesting look at just how determined the adult Simpsons are to avoid facing up to what hurts. It only scratches the surface, but even that superficial scratch proves potent enough.

When Marge's pre-take off panic attack causes the family to cancel their vacation plans, her latent anxieties continue to manifest themselves in increasingly strange and neurotic ways. Lisa urges Marge to see a therapist, but Homer is against the idea, for he has enough foresight to see where this is potentially headed. Instead, he seeks alternative outlets of support, including a hack radio psychic and agony aunt Dear Abby (Dear Abby, lest we forget, would later unwittingly respond to one of Marge's dilemmas), and gets the idea that watching films about air travel will help Marge to overcome her fears. Hence their visit to the VHS Village. Homer picks out a selection of pertinent videos, based on their upbeat titles - Hero, Fearless and most alluringly of all, Alive. This, too, is one of my favourite Simpsons gags.




You can see the misguided logic in Homer's thinking. On the one hand, all of those films do have ostensibly positive-sounding titles, although the imagery on each VHS cover should have been a dead giveaway as to the content in each case. Hero (Stephen Frears, 1992), Fearless (Peter Weir, 1993) and Alive (Frank Marshall, 1993) are all real pictures, and they were all relatively recent releases back in 1994. I'm not sure how much individual resonance Hero and Fearless would have had with viewers at the time, beyond what's self-evident, as both of those films nose-dived at the box office, but Alive was rather a different story. It didn't exactly make a blockbuster-sized killing either, but such was the infamy of its subject that mere mention of the title would have struck an uneasy nerve. Not everybody has seen the film, but most everybody knows the true-life story it was based on, or at least has a vague idea of what went on atop that remote Argentinian mountain in 1972. On October 13th, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 went missing while flying over the Andes carrying 45 passengers and crew, including members of the Old Christians Club rugby team. More than 70 days later, two of the missing individuals, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, arrived in Chile, having made a daring trek across the mountains in search of aid, and on their instructions authorities were able to locate the plane wreckage and an additional fourteen survivors. The lucky sixteen later revealed that there had been a disturbing cost to their survival, for in the absence of any viable food sources, they were forced to cannibalise the bodies of their dead friends and family. All of the passengers on board the flight were Roman Catholic, and some had rationalised the extreme measure as a form of Eucharist. Their story quickly became legendary, both as a testament to human tenacity and its ability to withstand the most adverse conditions, and as a troubling reminder of our fragility, and the harrowing decisions that might have to be made simply to sustain ourselves if the comforts of civilisation were stripped away. While Alive, based on Piers Paul Read's 1974 book Alive: The Story of The Andes Survivors, is one of the most famous media takes on the subject, it is but one artifact in a long-standing cultural fascination with the story. It had previously been dramatised as another feature film, Survive!, directed by Rene Cardona Jr in 1976. It likewise didn't take long for the world to begin plundering it for gallows humor -  Ted Kotcheff's 1978 film Who Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe? contains reference to a fictitious "Andes Plane Crash Cookbook", while in 1979 BBC comedy sketch show Not The Nine O'Clock News featured a skit in which two survivors of a plane crash (played by Mel Smith and Chris Langham) are interviewed about the drastic measures they took to stay alive; we are goaded to think at first that they are alluding to cannibalism, but it is revealed that they are actually describing the experience of having to eat airline food. Then a final punchline confirms that there was cannibalism involved after all ("I mean, we'd already eaten the other passengers..."). Added to that fine tradition, we have the parody in "Fear of Flying", as Marge watches the rented video and we hear one survivor mordantly remark that, "No thanks to the plane, many of us are still...alive!", followed by the tell-tale sounds of ravenous gorging. "Pass me another hunk of co-pilot..."

As a kid, I got this gag because Alive was one of those titles that had serious playground notoriety while I was growing up. "Have you seen the movie about the rugby team who crash into the mountains and have to eat each other to stay alive?" Most of my peers actually hadn't, but I knew one particularly loud-mouthed individual who claimed to have done so, and whose professed admiration for the sixteen survivors barely concealed the strangely perverted relish with which he would talk, in eagerly lurid detail, about the sequences in which they devoured the butt cheeks of their fallen comrades (as per his account, that's where the hunk of co-pilot came from). He was so emphatic on all of this, and the parody on the Simpsons so hair-raisingly macabre, that it was something of a disappointment, many years later, when I finally got hold of Alive and discovered that, not only is it not a good film, but it's actually not as interested in the whole cannibalism dilemma as you might have imagined (given that it's the only part that anybody talks about). Make no mistake - Alive is a Hollywood production with a glossy Hollywood sheen, and it's more interest in stressing the triumph of the story than the trauma. Despite reports of the method acting the cast were supposedly put through in order to simulate starvation (I read at least one book claiming that they were not only barred from eating, but were also tasked with watching the production crew eat), I must agree with what Roger Ebert said in his review: "As subtitles tick off "Day 50" and "Day 70," the actors in the movie continue to look amazingly healthy (and well-fed)." (Gene Siskel was more positive about the film, but felt that it could have used more of that gallows humor). The obvious issue of survivor's guilt - which is the focus of Fearless - is here treated in a very pat manner. And the butt-eating? In one scene you see a character insert their finger into what looks like the vague outline of a frozen human body in the snow - the outline is so vague that it's hard to tell which part of the body he's supposed to be fiddling with, but it could well be the buttocks.

Naturally, being a true story, it merits a certain degree of reverence, and too lurid a focus on the cannibalistic element would have run the risk of being exploitative. Nevertheless, for Alive to have succeeded, it needed to be a far more visceral and physically ugly experience than it is. The tenacity of the human spirit under pressure is all well and good, but I think in a scenario such as this the basic mechanics of survival deserve consideration too - the biological drive to keep ourselves alive, and how this might compel us to do things that under ordinary circumstances we would regard as unfathomable. As remarkable as the survivors' story is, it doesn't exactly strike me as the material of life-affirming cinema. We are, after all, talking about a situation in which the majority of persons involved died, and the minority who survived only did so by eating the dead. There comes a point where the film's spirituality comes to seem less like meaningful commentary than an indulgence by which to kid ourselves that we didn't come to this picture because we were morbidly curious about the cannibalism. I think of my friend, who claimed to be greatly inspired by the courage and endurance of the Andes sixteen, but plainly just wanted to see a movie about people eating keester. It's why I appreciate the gag in "Fear of Flying" - it speaks to a world still haunted by the cultural memory of a harrowing account of death and survival, subverting efforts to repackage that memory as rousing, feel-good entertainment by peeling back the veneer and revealing the crude, unmitigated horrors at the heart of the story; horrors that captivate as much as they repel.

Avoidance of staring an undesirable truth straight in the face is one of the characteristic themes of "Fear of Flying", an episode that, in my experience, gets little in the way of appreciation, in part due to its overall desultory nature. A common grievance with the episode has to do with Homer's opening arc - to find a new watering hole after being booted out of Moe's - is abruptly forgotten and never actually resolved, so that in the end we have to rely on our trust in the end of episode reset to get us back to where we started. Erik Adams of the AV Club takes takes issue with this, noting that the episode's sudden switch in interests is "a letdown after such a crackerjack cold open—one that gave the world Guy Incognito and the always useful Chinese word for crisis and opportunity, “crisitunity.”" He also criticises the overall lack of stakes with Marge's plight, stating that, "There’s no compelling reason to get Marge back on that plane, and her reason for keeping her feet on the ground isn’t particularly compelling" (actually, I do have a number of issues with Adams' review in general). It's true that the destination is less important than the flight itself (I don't think it's even established where the Simpsons were going - wherever it was, they had intended to take Abe with them, in a rare act of generosity toward him, but that turns out to all be the set-up for a Home Alone gag), and that Marge ultimately boards the plane in an effort to prove to herself that she has overcome her problems, which of course she hasn't. That reality is neatly encapsulated in the closing moments when she ends up with a carp swimming around her ankles. "Fear of Flying" is a frustrating episode, if by design, and I suspect that's why a lot of viewers struggle with it. It also has an unusually grim tone, which comes from trawling through all of Marge's half-repressed traumas. For the obviously ridiculous nature of most of her deepest, darkest memories (she had her innocence shattered on her first day of school, not because of all the unsettling falsehoods that Patty and Selma fed to her beforehand, but because she was forced to contemplate the manufactured nature of The Monkees), you still get a strong sense of just show small and vulnerable young Marge was, and how that continues to nibble away at her in the present.

As painful as our voyage through Marge's subconscious is, it ends up feeling like something of a futile effort, and in that regard the opening act involving Homer's personal, more physical quest makes for the perfect prelude. Lisa attempts to inspire Homer to make the best of a negative situation by informing him that the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do opportunity (apparently not, Lisa, although I suppose that Homer's own suggestion, "crisitunity", will suffice). The notion that a crisis inherently equals opportunity is maybe a tad questionable (it certainly wasn't for the 29 who perished in the Flight 571 disaster), but the implied motivational lesson is that a quandary has the potential to challenge us and enable to us to develop and change our situation for the better - although Homer, naturally, takes his crisitunity as affirmation that he should be doing more of the same in a different location. He ends up falling down quite the rabbit hole as he tours every alternative bar in Springfield, including a genteel cocktail bar (from which he is ejected on sight), a strangely familiar bar (which proves too terrifying), a trendy lesbian bar (which has no fire exit - enjoy your deathtrap, ladies) and finally a private airport bar for pilots, which is where things finally start to merge into Marge's aerophobia arc. Obviously, order will not be restored in the universe until Homer is back at Moe's (which doesn't happen here, causing things to feel slightly out of whack at the end, among other reasons). We sense that what's driving him on his quest, besides his craving for a beer, is the underlying desire to put off contemplating the alternative, which is to stay home and spend his evenings with the family, as was implied in his response earlier to Marge's suggestion that he pretend the couch is a bar. Homer keeps on moving in order to avoid facing up to the undesirable issue of his familial responsibility, taking him to increasingly far-out and unlikely venues. Later, when Marge's own crisitunity materialises, and she's asked with traversing her subconscious under the guidance of Dr. Zweig (wonderfully voiced by Anne Bancroft), we can see how her journey mirrors Homer's, as she hops from one uneasy dead end to another, before finally reaching an apparent conclusion in which the basic problem goes entirely unresolved.

We are led to believe that the issue Marge has been avoiding all along has to do with her father, which seems a fair enough subject given that we know so little about the man. The big revelation - she was horrified, as a child, to learn that her father worked as an airline steward - is flagrantly ridiculous, and is immediately undermined in being followed up by an all-out avalanche of unhappy childhood memories, all involving aviation imagery in some form, suggesting that Marge's fear of flying could have originated from any number of sources. Zweig, though, has her reasons for wanting to glibly pass over this "rich tapestry", as she's cottoned on that Homer is the real source of Marge's troubles, although more because of Homer's own actions than anything Marge lets slip, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy (Marge only betrays her resentment toward Homer once, when she relates a recurring, copyright-infringing Lost In Space-themed dream in which she casts Homer as Dr Smith). Homer's earlier response to Marge's plight - "The important thing is for your mother to repress what happened. Push it deep down inside her so she'll never annoy us again" - tells you all you need to know on why that is (it's also implicit in the episode title, a nod to the 1973 novel Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, which explores female sexuality from the perspective of a heroine looking to transcend the limitations of her unfulfilling marriage). Homer intervenes at this point, insisting that Zweig does not have to make Marge Superwoman, thus ensuring that the really painful issues stay haphazardly swept under the rug. Besides Homer, the other devil lurking in plain sight throughout "Fear of Flying" may be Jacqueline Bouvier, who appears in a couple of Marge's flashback but is never the focus of the discussions, despite an earlier moment in which we were reminded of some of the detrimental ways in which she conditioned Marge to suppress her emotions throughout childhood. (It's hinted, and not just here, that Marge may have as troubled a relationship with Jackie as Homer does with Abe, although this was never really explored in any substantial depth, possibly because Julie Kavner disliked doing Jackie's voice - in fact, I think this may even be her last speaking appearance for a lengthy stretch).

Marge's association with Zweig bows out with a callback to a moment from the Season 4 episode "Selma's Choice", in which we get another glimpse of Marge's peculiar obsession with reenvisioning details from her life in order to project herself into world of the 1991 film The Prince of Tides. Here, though, Marge doesn't explicitly acknowledge the connection, so unless you're familiar with the film, or the novel by Pat Conroy, you may be slightly confused by this reference. Marge tells Zweig that she will continue to honor the difference she has made by thinking, "Lowenstein, Lowenstein..." whenever she hears the wind whistling through the leaves (which is how Nick Nolte's character paid homage to Barbra Streisand's character at the end of that film, more-or-less) and blissfully ignores Zweig's indignant reassertion of her true identity, choosing to keep uttering "Lowenstein, Lowenstein..." as she goes her separate way. I presume this is Marge's attempt to affix her own glossy Hollywood sheen onto the ostensible end of her story, to convince herself of resolution where none exists. It's probably not a good sign that, rather than face the world with a heightened new awareness, she heads out retreating ever deeper into the comforts of fantasy. And, despite Marge's insistence that her surface-scratching with Dr Zweig has changed her life, we know that her newfound ability to get on that plane is ultimately a seriously hollow victory. As Homer had already reminded her, going on vacation is an opportunity for her to clean up after chaotic family in another state. That unseen carp swimming around her at the end, coupled with Homer's nonchalant commentary, seems especially ominous in that regard.

Still, if Marge got to watch Fearless out of the deal then the entire experience wasn't wholly in vain. Forget Alive, Fearless is the one you want to ride with.