Monday, 29 April 2019

The Joy of Disneywave

Simpsonwave might have attracted a decent amount of online media attention back in the tumultuous year of 2016, but one vaporwave offshoot that's remained relatively low-key is Disneywave. At the time of writing, the majority of Disneywave videos to be discovered on YouTube were uploaded by a user going by the moniker of R E L A X, and are typically comprised of various looped moments from classic Disney animations set to a succession of lo-fi beats. Like Simpsonwave, Disneywave trades heavily on the cultural currency of familiar characters, only whereas Simpsonwave will generally pinpoint and emphasise the moments within the series that reflect the characters at their most vulnerable, and are suggestive of the wider angst, despair and loneliness that pervade the characters' lives on a day-to-day basis, Disneywave seems to have a greater interest in straight nostalgia. Through the distillation of familiar Disney imagery, it seeks to create a kind of nostalgic purity, as if to transport us back into a lost land of childhood idyllicism - one such video by R E L A X even advertises this upfront with the non-ambiguous title N O S T A L G I C. The effect is strangely beguiling - there's something infinitely reassuring about seeing Bagheera the panther swish his tail back and forth for just shy of twelve minutes. The introductory sequence prefacing each Disneywave video by R E L A X juxtaposes VHS  distortion with the Walt Disney Pictures logo, has me instantly yearning for my own childhood spent getting acquainted with most of these classics via Disney Home Video, as if the lost state of being it alludes to is to be found hidden away within the glitchy flickers of the VHS lines themselves.

The tremendous power of these videos lies in their ability to conjure up a collective reaction, in which these replayed images become a shorthand for our a universal childhood experience we all immediately feel mournful for. Did such a land of lost childhood purity ever exist? Probably not - anyone who was actually around during the VHS era knows what kind of nightmares were actually nestled away within those tapes, what with their insistence on incorporating some of the most unsettling production logos imaginable (although no more unsettling than what anybody else was doing at the time). They were hardly a safe haven of childhood warmth. To say nothing of the curious duality between Disney the signifier of a spotless childhood utopia and the function Disney also serves as a child's indoctrination into the world of consumerist culture. Having grown up during the Renaissance era, which I now (semi) affectionately refer to as the Happy Meal era, I can recall only too well the experience of attending a screening of the latest Disney feature, only to be bombarded with imagery promoting said feature's numerous product tie-ins. Disney taught us the joy and wonder of the cinematic experience, and equally they knew how to exploit that awe to make us ardent consumers from a very young age. As I write, Disney is in the process of converting my generation's nostalgia for that very era into further cash by releasing a slew of live action remakes (or faux live action, in the case of the upcoming remake of The Lion King), so that we may repeat the process all over again (the Happy Meal tie-ins, after a long hiatus, even made a conveniently-timed comeback in 2018). Our tireless quest to uncover that little piece of our souls we see as taken from us by the sands of time is putty in the hands of the corporate fat cats.

By isolating evocative Disney images, removing them from context and looping them over and over, what Disneywave effectively accomplishes is to capture and preserve little bubbles of the so-called Disney magic; to freeze them in time, impervious to any form of change or progression, and let them run on for infinity (and beyond?). I would propose that the allure of such videos lies in their own curious duality - the thin line they straddle between a sincere embracing of this yearning for an untainted state of youthful bliss and an awareness of the regressive line of thought that accompanies our cultural fixation with the past. There's a certain obstinance in the way in which these videos sever these individual moments from the bugbears of narrative and character trajectory and keep them suspended in their own parallel universes, in which the subjects are unable to move past a solitary moment. The videos are charming in their constancy, and yet their monotony is suggestive of its own existential nightmare, an entrapment in an imagined past that doesn't so much as transcend time as quietly numb us to the process of time altogether. We may think we're gazing into a window of our bygone youth, but really we're stuck in a time loop of our own making, as we endeavor to recreate a past that never was while remaining firmly entrenched in the same consumerist plane we never left.

One Disneywave video that does not conform to this model is "D I S N E Y W A V E" by kristopher hori. Instead, a promotional video for Disneyland (more specifically, the Disneyland Fun VHS released as part of the Disney Sing-Along Songs series in 1990) is given the vaporwave treatment, an ethereal makeover that simultaneously acknowledges the eye-popping surrealness of the Disneyland experience and the banalities of its manufactured joy (it self-describes as "The Happiest Place on Earth", although the thing we all know about happiness is that when it's enforced it becomes anything but). The video seems designed to transport us to yet another haven of lost childhood bliss, one with a heavy aura of both strangeness and artifice; so persuasive is the imagery that we immediately find ourselves reminiscing about our own childhood visits to Disneyland, irrespective of whether or not such a trip ever featured in our personal histories - and if we were fortunate enough to have gone, we end up pondering how much of that visit we merely imagined, as it flickers and blurs with the Disneyland of cultural ideal. What makes Disneywave as a whole so fascinating is the obvious reverence it has for the special place that Disney holds within all our hearts, as it demonstrates the power in evoking that place as a means of striking us at our most vulnerable.

PS: While scouring the Disneywave videos currently on YouTube I also discovered that Donkey Kong Wave is a thing. What that's all about I have yet to investigate.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Estate Sale (Eels)

Daisies of The Galaxy, the third album by California-based rock band Eels, is an enigma, a collection of predominantly upbeat-sounding tunes bubbling along atop a barely-concealed undercurrent of despair. Even the cover of the album seems purposely designed to throw us off. Ostensibly, it has the benign appearance of an illustration taken from an old-fashioned children's storybook, with the image of a group of four children offering two dogs a stick against a the idyllic backdrop and soft colours of a placid lakeside residence. All sense of childhood bliss and innocence is immediately disturbed, however, by that parental advisory sticker in the top right corner (there is a track entitled "It's A Motherfucker" in the listings, after all), prompting us to look again at the image. We begin to suspect that there is a darker significance to this picture that's perhaps not apparent at first glance; that, much like that pristine blue lake in the background, something far more unsavoury may be lurking beneath the surface. On second glance, the way in which all four children stand close together gives them the appearance of a gang looming threateningly above the pint-sized pups. The manner in which the tallest girl is directing her stick toward the dogs seems more hostile than playful, suggesting that she intends to prod the dogs with the stick, not throw it for them. The dogs, for their part, do not appear excited or reassured by the presence of the children, but unsettled and intimidated. Suddenly, the smiles of those rosy-cheeked cherubs become the faces of cruelty, sadism and unchecked rambunctiousness (all of which are as characteristic of childhood as carefree games of tag and stickball). It's an image infused with nostalgia, but also unease, as if purposely contemplating some of the less agreeable recesses of childhood.

Of course, it becomes difficult to delve particularly far into Eels' discography without acknowledging the personal tragedies experienced by E (aka Mark Oliver Everett) between the release of Beautiful Freak in 1996 and the band's sophomore album Electo-Shock Blues in 1998. Within that time, E lost both his sister and his mother (his father having already died when E was a teenager) and found himself very suddenly the last surviving member of his immediate family. As a result, loss and loneliness are two themes that have continued to pervade Eels' work, although compared to the downbeat, reflective anguish of Electro-Shock Blues, Daisies of The Galaxy finds E in a beguilingly poppy mood. He's a survivor, but a survivor who understands all too well that the road to recovery is not a linear path. The aforementioned "It's A Motherfucker" deals the most explicitly with bereavement, while others, such as the buoyantly ironic "Mr E's Beautiful Blues" (which became the album's lead single), take a more sardonic view on the complexities of rising to face a new day.

The most intriguing track on Daisies of The Galaxy is "Estate Sale", a short piece, barely more than a minute and a half long, on which E's vocals are conspicuously absent and a jumbled assortment of voices, familiar yet strangely disconcerting, are heard in their place. Ostensibly, "Estate Sale" is about nostalgia; the first voice we hear informs us that, "These are the sounds of days that are past". Then another: "A miracle was about to happen." One alludes to a bygone era, the other refers to a future event, although the tense clearly places the pending miracle within the context of the past. The two voices are likely to strike a chord with those armed with a thorough knowledge of 20th century Americana - the first is that of broadcaster and war correspondent Edward R. Murrow, and is sampled from the opening to Murrow's 1948 spoken word record I Can Hear It Now.... The second voice belongs to a classic icon of many a mid-century childhood, Wilma Flintstone (more accurately, it's Jean Vander Pyl, but here she is in character as Wilma). There is a warmth and geniality to both of the voices, and yet "Estate Sale" is not a cosy listen. The voices are interspersed amid an elegiac organ melody, reminiscent of the kind of mournful, reflective music one would typically encounter at a funeral ceremony. The spectre of death hangs over it - the very title "Estate Sale" is disturbing, calling to mind an event designed to sell off the possessions of a deceased person, else one who needs to uproot their life rapidly. Once again, we are prompted to reevaluate what Eels intends for us to take from from this scenario. With its morbid undertones, "Estate Sale" feels less like the nostalgic yearning for a bygone time than it does flat-out haunted - the "sounds of days that are past" become the voices of something dead and ostensibly buried that continues to whisper to us, not necessarily amicably, from beyond the earthly realm. What kinds of ghosts haunt our "Estate Sale"?

"Estate Sale" is one of Eels' most Boards of Canada-esque tracks, combining a fascination with retro technology (the vinyl crackle, which reinforces that same uneasy schism between nostalgia and perturbation; at once warm and vintage while carrying a disconcerting association with estrangement and distortion) with cut-up audio samples from various, vaguely familiar sources to convey a sense of childhood innocence disturbed or disrupted. "Estate Sale" certainly has an interest in the artifacts of childhood; amid the voices heard jabbering faintly throughout the latter half of the track, for the most part barely discernible, one can very clearly pick out the word "Bambi" a couple of times. Only that's not dialogue from the Disney film. That's actually Wilma Flintstone again. Bambi, the world's most famous fictional cervine by a county mile, is another enduring icon of childhood, and while Disney's depiction of Bambi has continued to dominate the public's perception of the character since the debut of the animated classic in 1942, he started life in 1923 as the brainchild of Austrian author Felix Salten, who first wrote about the sprightly fawn in the children's novel, Bambi, a Life in The Woods. There have been a number of adaptations of Salten's book besides the Disney version, including a live action Russian film in 1985, and a spoken word record narrated by Wilma Flintstone, dialogue from which is featured prominently throughout "Estate Sale".

Wilma Flinstone Tells The Story of Bambi was released by Hanna-Barbera Records in 1965 as part of a wider series of spoken word recordings in which various Hanna-Barbera characters plundered the public domain for familiar tales and narrated them with their own individual twists (actually, the extent to which Bambi is to be considered public domain has been the subject of drawn-out legal dispute in the US - the short of it is that, as of writing, it is not considered public domain in the US, but the American copyright is set to expire in 2022). Other titles within the same series had Huckleberry Hound narrating the story of Brer Rabbit and The Tar Baby, Yogi Bear narrating Little Red Riding Hood (yes, pic-a-nic baskets, very apt), Mr Jinks narrating Cinderella and Johnny Quest narrating Jules Verne's seminal science fiction classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. I note that these were largely stories that Disney had already covered, although Top Cat's version of Robin Hood beat out Disney's take on the legend by several years.

The set-up of the record has Wilma telling the story of Bambi to Pebbles and Bam-Bam in order to teach them about empathy and sensitivity after observing their rough treatment of family pet Dino. Despite the comic framing narrative, Wilma's take on Salten's story is played entirely straight (yes, Bambi's mother still dies in this version) and as a result the record does come off as sincere in its message about treating all living creatures with respect. Incidentally, if you think the whole idea of a prehistoric cavewoman telling a story that wouldn't be published until 1923 is kind of suspect, then loosen up. Hanna-Barbera lived by different rules.

The following audio samples in "Estate Sale" were taken from Wilma Flintstone Tells The Story of Bambi:

  • 0:16 - "A miracle was about to happen."
  • 0:28 - Birdsong is heard.
  • 0:33 - A tapping noise (the sound of a woodpecker relating a coded message) is heard.
  • 1:01 - The following extract plays out:
"What are you gonna name him?" asked the squirrel.

"I think I'll call him Bambi," answered the mother deer.

"Bambi, huh? That's perfect! It just sounds like a cute little deer - like Bambi!" (Squirrel laughs)

Being only a few hours old, Bambi wasn't too strong..."

(Note: although Vander Pyl provided most of the dialogue on this recording, the squirrel's helium vocals came courtesy of Dick Beals.)

There is at least one other audio sample, also a female voice, that's interspersed with the above extract. For the most part, this is too muted for me to make out, although at 1:07 I can clearly hear the word "sacrifice" and at 1:20 the statement "And so it is..." That statement, coupled with the solemnity of the woman's voice leads me to suspect that the recording may be religious in nature, although obviously I cannot say for certain.

The appearance of a chopped up children's story in such a downbeat, disconcerting track is itself unsettling, for it is evocative of the lost childhood innocence that haunts so many Boards of Canada compositions, perhaps made all the more salient here by the notoriety of its protagonist. After all, no fictional character encapsulates a sense of shattered childhood innocence more succinctly than Bambi. When you hear the name "Bambi", you might instantly picture the cute, doe-eyed fawn of the Disney canon, but odds are that your mind eventually wandered to the unfortunate rite of passage that Bambi is made to endure before reaching adulthood and assuming his place as Prince of the Forest. When the squirrel shrieks his name twice in the above audio sample, there's a sense of immediate familiarity, but also ominousness. We all know Bambi, and we know what's coming to him (or at least to his mother). "Estate Sale" trades on the character's powerful cultural currency. Meanwhile, I am conscious of the fact that, at the time of Daisies of The Galaxies' release in February 2000, Jean Vander Pyl herself was still less than a year deceased. A familiar voice that had entertained children for close to four decades was now officially consigned to the past, and through the recordings she left behind, Vander Pyl effectively was speaking to us from beyond the grave. Amid the cut-up, only partially intelligible audio is the doleful sense of a legacy on the cusp of fading into memory.

The title "Estate Sale" is indicative of the track's conflicted relationship with these lingering spectres. It conjures up images of the earthly possessions of the dead or destitute being offered up for harvest by the public, to be scavenged through like so many vultures picking at the bones of a decomposing gazelle carcass, as their former owner's legacy, reduced to a musty collection of material debris, is slowly pulled apart and disintegrates. It is a dispiriting scenario, and yet an estate sale also offers the opportunity for change, a chance to shed oneself of worldly clutter, and all of the emotional baggage that goes with it, and to start anew elsewhere (Bambi is, above all, a story of resilience and renewal). Listening to "Estate Sale", one comes away with the impression that the subject of this particular estate sale, whether real or metaphorical, wishes to be rid of these spectres but at the same time cannot bear to part with them. The track plays like a rumination on the paradoxes of psychic debris, the voices of yore squirreled away from various points across our lifetimes that serve to intermittently disturb our footing the present; faded and broken and yet persistent, as fondly reassuring as they are coldly alienating. Perhaps the most troubling paradox of all is the sense of stagnation mixed with slow decay; the subject is seemingly stuck with their personal debris, regarded by the scavenging public with total indifference, and yet this is not something fixed and reliable - those ghosts continue to linger, but we can hear the process of time working away at them, causing their voices to become gradually more estranged and indistinct. Furthermore, Eels appear to be making a point about the ultimate nature of legacy, for inevitably our memory too will be nothing more than fragmentary chunks for scavengers to take from what they will, or else leave discarded in a mildew-ridden heap. If there's one really crucial lesson to be taken from our cervine chum Bambi, aside from the one Wilma Flintstone identifies, it's that everything has its time.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Akbar & Jeff's Video Hut (aka Charlie Brown in Rental Hell)

One of the many running gags in Life In Hell has to do with Akbar and Jeff, a couple of large-nosed humans (maybe) in fezzes who have a hut and keep periodically changing the business they operate within. Akbar and Jeff are business partners and also sexual partners, their ongoing relationship quibbles being one of the most enduring features of Groening's comic creation. They are identical twins (maybe) and therefore incestuous lovers. That, or they are clones and also lovers. Their mutual attraction is the one thing about them that's entirely indisputable, despite the comic's initial claims to ambiguity on the matter. According to a documentary I saw many years ago, Groening came up with the idea of using two indistinguishable characters as a means of recreating the kinds of discussions he was having with his girlfriend at the time because he wanted the interplay to be neutral, so that it wasn't clear which character was meant to represent whom in the relationship (his girlfriend's response: "You think you're Akbar but you're really Jeff."). According to the same documentary, the character design was based on Groening's own hideous attempts, as an aspiring cartoonist, to recreate Charles M Schulz's Charlie Brown (hence the zigzagged t-shirts). Now that I think about it, the title "Charlie Brown in Hell" has quite a striking ring to it.

The video rental store spoofed in the above ad for Akbar & Jeff's Video Hut (first published in 1985 and reprinted later that year in the compilation book Work Is Hell) is now a relic of a bygone era. We're currently living in the age of subscription streaming where, in lieu of a weekly pilgrimage to a damp-smelling brick and mortar building, we access everything at the click of a button within the comfort of our own living room (I say "we", but actually I'm a twisted hipster deviant who prefers analog media, wherever possible). And yet, as we've discussed, there is no escaping our past, or the possible futures it might once have suggested. Every time you browse Netflix for a movie to stream, the ghost of Blockbuster Video paces up and down your living room like Casey Affleck's character in the film A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017). Blockbuster (along with all the mom and pop rental stores that Blockbuster gleefully cannibalised) has been absent from the cultural scene for long enough to have passed the point of mere obsoletion and to have entered the realm of nostalgia. This article by Natalie Degraffinried notes that 2018 saw "a sudden and concerted resurgence" in fond reminiscing for the Texan-born video rental chain, which at its peak had over 9000 stores worldwide, but as of 2019 has dwindled to a single store in Bend, Oregon. As examples of the renewed interest in this near-extinct property, Degraffinried cites, "a popup in London only offering Deadpool 2, the appearance of a store in the first Captain Marvel trailer (which is set in the ’90s), all those stories about the last Blockbuster," and attributes it to "the inclination to pounce on stories about the “last” of things as we suffer and posture through the endless churn of capitalism." That, and the whole slippery nature of hauntology. As the distance between the present and the Blockbuster era increases, we feel the pressing urge to hold onto what only continues to fade into memory, and perhaps we're also a little curious as to how life would be if Blockbuster were still with us and dictating our home entertainment options. Personally, the last time I set foot in a Blockbuster was in 2003 (and only because I really, really wanted to see Donnie Darko, having missed its theatrical run), yet I'll admit I did feel a strange sense of emptiness walking past an abandoned Blockbuster in early 2014, to which some wry individual had affixed the notice, "For your nearest Blockbuster, set your time machine to 2012". Sometimes, just knowing that something isn't there any more can be terribly unsettling, even if you hadn't paid attention to it in yonks.

"Akbar & Jeff's Video Hut", which predated Blockbuster's rise to the top of the rental chain food chain, evokes the banality of the video rental experience, but throws an oddly sinister undercurrent, with the assertion that, "Staying at home watching rented movies on TV is your safest entertainment value." There's something about locking ourselves up in our own living rooms and shunning contact with the wider world that Groening posits here as anti-social, and indicative of a creeping distrust and suspicion of our fellow human beings. The message is clear - hide, from what's out there, whatever that might be. Of course, this is something that's only intensified with the rise and dominance of streaming. After all, to rent a VHS you actually had to leave your home and spend some time in the company of like-minded souls, but the streaming process allows you to skip that process altogether. Adjust to a diet of takeout pizza and Just Eat delivered junk and you may never even have to leave the house again. The Video Hut also offers a bleak vision of the entertainment business model, with its emphasis on choice where none effectively exists. The manner in which the Hollywood machine here keeps burping out teen sequel after teen sequel calls to mind George Ritzer's theory of McDonaldization, which argues that human beings are creatures of habit and as such we tend to gravitate toward more of the same. One of the key principles of McDonaldization is predictability - a trip to the rental store offers a social experience (albeit less so than a full theatrical experience), but any social experience also entails an element of risk. You know what you're getting with a chain store like Blockbuster (since they all look more-or-less the same), but you can never be sure who exactly you're going to run into, or that another eager customer won't have snapped up the last copy of your desired title just before you. The rental experience minimises the risk by enabling us to get away as soon as we've made our selection (compared to the theatre, where I might have the misfortune of being seated next to a nosy popcorn rustler of a couple of hormone-spewing lovers for the entirety of the experience). Streaming, meanwhile, bypasses the whole messy element of having to interact with our fellow humans, and ensures that we don't have to worry about titles being out of stock (although the workings of the entertainment business model will inevitably limit the selection of titles on offer). In the fifth edition of his book The McDonaldization of Society, published in 2008, Ritzer notes that the very principles that enabled Blockbuster to become "the McDonalds of the video business" were beginning to turn against it, as more efficient options came along. Ritzer accurately anticipated the rise of streaming in noting that, "Alternatively, instead of trekking to the video store, people can just turn to the proper channel and punch a few buttons to obtain a desired movie." (p.68) Why waste precious calories?

So what is is that people miss about the brick and mortar rental experience, exactly? Is it the thrill of browsing, of stretching one's legs around the shop floor and never knowing what you might find or which like-minded souls you get to spend a few fleeting moments in the company of? Obviously, there's something to be said for tangibility. It has a warmth and presence that you cannot simulate just by pounding a few buttons. I will go a step further, however, and propose that a huge aspect of the rental's appeal came from that unspoken sense of inter-connectivity. Something that you'll certainly never get from the streaming process is the sensation of being a link in a very specific chain. Each individual cassette you rented had a history, and a future. Assuming that you didn't have the luxury of being the first ever customer to get your hands on it, others will have taken that tape into their abodes before you, the VHS lines and sweaty finger marks along the case being remnants of their mutual interest and enthusiasm for the title in question. We might think we're isolating ourselves from the rest of the world by grabbing our selection and making a dash for it, but in actuality these tangible items are keeping us all connected. It's a story that we all unwittingly add to; as patrons to our local video rental store, we each play a collaborative role in the tape's gradual wearing down through repeated usage. We each may only see a fragmentary glimpse of that process, but we are all bearing witness to an object's journey through the passage of time. The tape returns to the store, never entirely the same for its time under our roof, be it the addition of an extra VHS line where we hit the rewind and stop buttons in rapid succession, or a few extra finger marks upon the spine of the casing. Where do we go if we want that kind of experience today? Your local library for a dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights, I suppose.

The colleague I brought up in my previous post was unimpressed by my VHS hoarding habits, warning me that "Stuff decays." He's quite right of course. Stuff decays. People decay. Everything decays. Decay is a part of life, and to watch the process in action is to see time in action. It's a beautiful thing in its way.

A handful of stray observations:
  • Among the titles listed in the Kiddie Korner is Animal Farm (John Halas and Joy Batchelor, 1954), an animated adaptation of George Orwell's Aesopian political allegory about the rise of Stalinism. The film has historical significance as the first British animated feature film (barring a couple of animated army training pictures that were not commercially screened), but is otherwise unremarkable. It's not a terrible film, but it has the turgid feel of something made largely to give frustrated literature teachers an additional teaching tool when covering the book, although they would have to apologise for the revised Hollywood ending (the reality is actually far more unnerving; the film was funded by the CIA as an anti-communist tract, and the CIA apparently insisted on the changed ending). I assume the joke here is that Animal Farm isn't exactly what you'd deem traditional kiddie fodder (despite its deceptively innocuous title), and any parent who rents this as a substitute babysitter is potentially going to have some explaining to do afterwards. That being said, one of the pitfalls the 1954 adaptation is that it clearly was heavily influenced by the Disney model (despite being a very un-Disney story), and we get a ton of incongruous comic relief sequences with cute baby animals. It's probably still an ounce too dark for most small children to handle, but this is a very sugar-coated version of Orwell's story nevertheless (albeit less so than the 1999 version, the single saving grace of which is that Snowball speaks with the voice of Sideshow Bob).
  • You probably didn't need me to point this out, but An American in Paris is a Hollywood production.
  • I ever reach the point where I'm nostalgic for Lovefilm, you know that I've lost it.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

The Joy of Simpsonwave (aka The Ghost of Lowenstein is in the Grasses)

I frequently have a hard time justifying my ongoing love affair with VHS to the digitally-minded majority who packed up and deserted their analog cassettes by the year 2000, not least because I inevitably have to concede that VHS is by an far an inferior format to its disc/data-based counterparts. I recently had a conversation with an older work colleague who'd come of age in the 1980s and spent much of his youth pulling out titles from video rental stores, and who basically minced no words in suggesting that I was a twisted young hipster obsessed with outmoded technology I had the luxury of not being saddled with during my formative years. VHS, he was at pains to remind me, is ugly and grainy, and back in the 1980s few things could dampen a home viewing experience quite like sticking a rented tape into your video machine to discover that several rounds in previous patron's VCRs had worn the thing into a degraded, unwatchable mess. "That's the beauty of it," I argued. "The graininess. The distortion. There's something about the VHS aesthetic that's oddly appealing in its impairment." Well, he wasn't buying. I had an even tougher challenge, a month or so later, when I was tasked with explaining the appeal of vaporwave to the same individual. "It's sort of a satirical genre designed to evoke the banality of the 1990s," I said, no doubt royally screwing the pooch in the process. My friend took exception to my feeble description. "The 1990s were not banal!" he insisted. "The shopping malls were," I replied. "That's more-or-less what vaporwave's getting at." I played him a track from a vaporwave album, Sunday Television by 猫 シ Corp., which he categorised as "music for teens walking into school to murder their classmates", and that was that. I had failed to win a new convert to the flock of vapor.

As a music genre, vaporwave is notable for the strong and seemingly contradictory reactions it inspires in listeners. Stefan Colton, in the article "Love in the Time of VHS: Making Sense of Vaporwave", comments that vaporwave finds its appeal in "two ideologically opposed camps: nostalgics who take pilgrimages to defunct blockbusters to worship the ruins of VHS, and anti-consumerist crusaders against the kitsch of capitalism." Being a movement dedicated plundering and desecrating any and all artifacts of late 20th Century consumerism with gleeful abandon, vaporwave has the potential to be one man's scathing satire and another's fuzzy nostalgia bomb. Some people, it would seem, just don't get the joke. Or maybe they get it all too well.

With my respective penchants for VHS and vaporwave in mind, it was inevitable that I would get hooked on "Simpsonwave", a bizarre internet phenomenon that turned a few heads back in 2016. Somebody, possibly a Vine user by the name of Spicster (whom we at least have to thank for popularising the movement), came up with the idea of combining vaporwave music with those most enduring and prolific of all 90s animated icons, Bart Simpson and brethren. Successive videos adopted an aesthetic designed to parallel the glitchy, chopped up qualities of vaporwave, and memetic magic was born. As the phenomenon grew in magnitude, several internet commentators took note and weighed in an attempt to figure out its weird appeal. One such commentator was Kevin Lozano, who penned the article "What the Hell Is Simpsonwave?" , for Pitchfork, documenting the origins of the meme and concluding that, "Those early seasons of “The Simpsons” are reeking with ‘90s nostalgia and flashes of surrealism, while vaporwave accesses something deeper in that energy, tapping into a sort of dreamy ennui." Featured in Lozano's piece is an interview with Lucien Hughes, compiler of one of the most prominent Simpsonwave playlists on YouTube, who attributes the popularity of the videos to the unique cultural currency of The Simpsons, the awe-inspiring success and longevity of which has kept it on the air and at the forefront of public zeitgeist for more than three decades: "The Simpsons is pretty unique in that it's something that almost everyone born between the late ’80s and early ’00s grew up watching. Vaporwave is very much about creating an atmosphere of nostalgia, so I feel The Simpsons just perfectly fits the whole aesthetic." Joe Blevins of The A.V. Club praises the efforts, calling them "trippy and transportive but also oddly soothing and even beautiful."

I'll wager that part of the reason for the meme's success lies in its emphasis on the melancholic. In part, it's a melancholia for our own bygone days, the disquietude in seeing the cultural artifacts of our youth presented in a chopped up and recycled state; what once seemed fresh, sparkling and new is now the fodder of internet memes. But there's also something genuinely haunting about the tendency in Simpsonwave to pinpoint the characters at their most vulnerable and despondent. By isolating and honing in on some of the show's moodier, more desolate moments (moments that are easily brushed over or at least softened within the context of a twenty-minute gag fest), it ends up showcasing familiar characters in a different, yet not invalid light. One video, U S E D  T O  K N O W by XoroX (below), makes the surprisingly convincing case that there's a fundamental existential despair underpinning Homer's characterisation, drawing on his feelings of childhood abandonment, inadequacies as a husband and his reliance on Duff Beer to ease the pain, set to the strains of a severely disfigured version of Gotye's 2011 pop hit "Somebody That I Used To Know" (note: this video is a reworking of an earlier Simpsonwave video named C R I S I S by the aforementioned Lucien Hughes, which used the track "Decay" by HOME and featured a slightly more upbeat ending). At its most potent, Simpsonwave brings out a bleaker undercurrent to the series, one which we end up suspecting has been right there under our noses the entire time, and which now serves as an almost hauntingly apt echo to our own feelings of regret and alienation in the present moment.

To understand the appeal of vaporwave and its assorted offshoots, it is important to step back even further and consider vaporwave's place in relation to a wider concept known as hauntology. The phrase "hauntology" has become popular in recent years due to its association with a predominantly British musical scene that thrives on a sort of twisted nostalgia for the public information films, documentaries and educational programs of yesteryear (music such as that of the Ghost Box label, Concretism and Boards of Canada), but the term was first coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx, in ruminating on how the ghosts of communism would continue to haunt capitalistic society following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The concept of hauntology, which Derrida characterised with a quote from William Shakespeare's Hamlet, "The time is out of joint", concerns a present that is held captive by two delusory states - a past that has faded into mere memory, and all of the potential futures that have perished along with it. Hauntology is more than just the nostalgia for what has passed, but the nostalgia for what never was.

A great part of hauntology's appeal as an entertainment form has to do with the self-conscious and unsettling sense it evokes of a half-remembered/misremembered past infusing the present creating its own parallel universes - glimpses into alternate timelines that could just have plausibly have gotten us to where we are today. Richard Littler has used this to particularly witty effect with his project Scarfolk, a satirical blog which transforms the cultural attitudes and government paraphernalia of 1970s Britain into the building blocks of dystopian horror. The BBC comedy series Look Around You, an affectionate, if rather caustic pastiche of the ITV Schools series Experiment, was cut from a similar cloth. In both cases, nostalgia is employed and inverted in order to convey a distrust for our collective heritage and how it shaped us. Boards of Canada, a popular Scottish electronic music duo whose catalogue has specialised in evoking the soundtracks of the vintage nature documentaries produced by the National Film Board of Canada, but infused with a nagging sense that there is something undeniably threatening nibbling away beneath the surface, understood the appeal of such troubled reminiscing when they stated that their music is about "inventing a past that didn't really happen." The success of BoC's music lies in its sunny, nostalgic charm but there is also a clear element of diurnal horror in the proceedings, a feeling that something about this trip down memory lane isn't quite adding up. Michael Sandison, one half of BoC, proposes that there is something warm, but also upsetting and eerily deceptive about the nature of memory, when he muses that “If there’s sadness in the way we use memory, it’s because the time you’re focusing on has gone forever… It’s a theme we play on a lot, that bittersweet thing where you face up to the fact that certain chapters of your life are just Polaroids now.” As memory fades, it assumes new identities and becomes its own beast. Faded Polaroids and worn-out VHS tapes capture that temporal process in action - the distortion and mutation of the artifacts that once epitomised our youth and optimism. Vaporwave (a term which derives from "vaporware", referring to a product that is promised but never materialises) has a similar interest in distorting the familiar in order to bring out the uncanny qualities it posits were lurking there all along, and to initiate a necromantic dialogue with the ghosts in the machinery of shopping malls, weather channels and adult contemporary radio. Vaporwave understands that there is great fascination, even terror to be mined from the vapidity of the modern hopes and dreams of a bygone age.

A possible factor in why The Simpsons has proven such an adept bedfellow for vaporwave has to do with the acute awareness the show has always demonstrated for the role of popular culture in shaping (and simultaneously distorting) our individual and collective memories. Right from the start, The Simpsons was astonishingly deft at plundering the US cultural heritage and assembling a scrapbook of the critical moments that had molded America's understanding of where it presently was, where it had come from and where it suspected that it might be headed. In many respects, the colourful and dynamic cartoon captured the optimism of the non-threatening nineties, that garish period sandwiched in between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 when information technology was taking off in a big way and people were more concerned about the possibility of extra-terrestrial invasion than threats from foreign lands (the truth is out there, and all that). But it was just as wise to the banality of the age and to the repugnancies of consumerist culture (McDonaldization, McJobs, McEverything), even if the show's own ubiquitous merchandising push meant that it too was a part of that consumerism, a paradox that the series readily acknowledged on numerous occasions ("Treehouse of Horror II", "Bart Gets Famous" and "Lisa vs Malibu Stacey" all contain thinly-veiled digs at the wide array of tie-in products that were spawned in the wake of the series' breakout success). Above all, The Simpsons understood the power of popular culture in evoking a sense of time and place, and increasingly had to grapple with its own status as a television juggernaut and the dent it had made in the cultural landscape it was pillaging. Look no further than Homer's wry introduction to the flashback in the Season 9 episode "Lisa's Sax": "It all happened in 1990! Back then, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince was currently known as Prince. Tracey Ullman was entertaining America with songs, sketches and crudely drawn filler material. And Bart was eagerly awaiting his first day of school." Attentive viewers might pick up on the temporal disturbance in Homer's words, for he self-consciously references the series' origins as a collection of supporting segments on The Tracey Ullman Show, then immediately relates it to a point in the family's personal history with which it could not logically overlap - anyone around at the time knows that 1990 was the year when Marge turned 34 and came this close to ditching Homer for an amorous Frenchman (so slightly later than their crudely drawn filler material days, then), and yet here it is given as the setting for a much earlier point in the family's lives, when Lisa was a toddler and Bart was poised for his induction into the horrors of Springfield Elementary. The longer The Simpsons has remained on the air, the more nightmarishly disordered this temporal confusion has become. But then as we've discussed, the past is not a static entity, being prone to mutating as it edges ever further along into obscurity. The Simpsons is the unique position, as a long-running series in which the fundamental elements have always stayed effectively the same, in being forced to cannibalise its own history, ouroboros-like, in order to keep itself on top.

More troubling than The Simpsons' own haunted timeline is the uneasy sense of a past that is gradually slipping away and being flattened into a banal compilation of pop culture trivia. Homer's introduction follows a pattern set by previous flashback episodes in which the family attempts to trace its personal origins (in "Lisa's First Word" of Season 4, Marge sums up the cultural landscape of 1983 with the line, "Ms Pac-Man struck a blow for women's rights, and a young Joe Piscopo taught us how to laugh") but "Lisa's Sax" was the first to knowingly acknowledge that the era which The Simpsons had itself helped to define was already fading into nostalgia and becoming the diluted materials for expository scene-setting, and there is something quaintly charming but also startling in seeing the the series observe its own cultural legacy take its place within that cycle. And while the assorted cultural markers interspersed throughout "Lisa's Sax" and similar episodes are often very cleverly deployed (Homer's review of David Lynch's Twin Peaks is particularly slick), there's a deliberate ham-fistedness in the manner in which they self-consciously pander to the viewer's desire for a trip down memory lane - eg: the "Disco Sucks" bumper sticker in "I Married Marge" and Marge's discussion with her neighbours in "Lisa's First Word" about the finale of M*A*S*H (emblems which are inevitably divorced of their intended meaning as the series' viewership ages and the next generation only knows about the existence of such things because they saw it on The Simpsons). The Simpsons has long been fascinated with the highly persuasive manner in which popular culture pervades and colours our personal conceptions of time and place, to the extent that it threatens to supplant individual experience altogether - in its place, we end up with the same kind of universal experience propagated by the mass media that our pathologically obsessive friend Wilson Bryan Key warned us about in Subliminal Seduction. But that experience too will have its meaning corroded over time.

For an example of that process in action, take a gander at the video featured at the top of this page, M E M O R I E S by NEOTIC. At 5:30, we see a short moment from the Season 4 episode, "Selma's Choice", in which a young Marge, Patty and Selma hold hands underwater and form a ring, looped here for two minutes and nineteen seconds to the dreamy synths of Greibel Sanchez's "Contigo". The purplish tint (a recurring characteristic of Simpsonwave) coupled with the blare of the overhead sun and the expanding and retracting ripples give the imagery a hallucinatory feel, creating an instant sense of a hazy, half-recalled memory struggling to materialise from the sands of time. The moment is a textbook example of what journalist David Keenan, in attempting to define the music genre hypnagogic pop (a close cousin to vaporwave), described as "refracted through the memory of a memory". For it is the re-appropriation of a re-appropriation - the moment derives from Marge's efforts to reminisce about her late Aunt Gladys, only to discover that her childhood memories have been conflated with imagery from Barbra Streisand's 1991 film The Prince of Tides. Of course, popular culture is a fickle thing; on the DVD commentary for "Selma's Choice" the production crew joke that The Prince of Tides, then a recent box office smash, has all but faded from collective consciousness, meaning that the joke potentially makes no sense to contemporary audiences. In its place, the image of Marge and her sisters assumes a cultural currency all of its own. Shorn of its original context and distilled to its most basic state, Marge's corrupted memories of a feature film the wider world has largely forgotten becomes a shorthand for own hazy, half-recalled childhoods. We see the passage of time decaying and mutating, as new Frankenstein creations rise up from the bones of that which has fallen at the wayside, our own recollections filtered through the recollections of another, themselves an imagined representation of a past that never really was. Curiously, this is not the only point in the series' history in which Marge's perception of reality is shown to have been hijacked by this specific film - in the Season 6 episode "Fear of Flying", we see that Marge has confused the name of her Anne Bancroft-voiced therapist with that of Streisand's character, Susan Lowenstein, and appears to willfully ignore the therapist's objection, seemingly so that she can recreate the experience of Nick Nolte's character at the end of the film, in which "Lowenstein" becomes his mantra for co-existing with the ghosts of a future he chose not to pursue. Nolte's closing words, "I wish again that there were two lives apportioned to every man", seem almost ridiculously narrow in scope when the present exists as a meeting point for an entire labyrinth of increasingly contorted parallel universes, born of what we vaguely remember, what we once dreamed, and what we merely saw on TV.

Remember that piece I wrote on Psycho II, where I read the film as the representation of a present trapped within a past, a theme explored in the original which in sequel takes on a whole new resonance due to the manner in which it self-consciously evokes and plays off of the cultural legacy of its predecessor? I feel as if I'm on the verge of making a similar case for The Simpsons, only here it's a present trapped within an alternate timeline created by popular culture (which The Simpsons in turn has played a critical role in helping to further redefine and mutate). In the meantime, let's Nighthawk with Abraham Simpson.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Bongo's Diary: That Hellacious Spring of 65 (aka I'm Going To Junior Disneyland Hotel)

Back in 1985, still two years before the Simpson family made their relatively low-key debut on The Tracey Ullman Show, cartoonist Matt Groening went in search of his misspent boyhood, scratching a particularly anti-nostalgic itch by taking readers of his Life In Hell comics on an epic odyssey twenty years into the past, when he was still a sprightly young nipper stuck in school hall limbo. The result was a collection of strips in which one-eared rabbit Bongo sets out to chronicle his daily classroom adventures, in the hopes that he'll one day be able to flog his memoirs for a lot of money (and while Bongo is our protagonist, here he clearly functions as an avatar for Groening himself, although how much of this was taken directly from Groening's actual childhood experiences I could not say - there's a disclaimer in Part Three stating that "Yes, this is true, except the names", but still). The series lasted for eight strips, all of which were later collected and reprinted as part of the compilation book School Is Hell in 1987.

The "My 5th Grade Diary" series presents something of an enigma for me, in that each time I revisit it I am compelled to delve in deep in the fruitless hope of digging out some kind of underlying narrative logic to the utter monotony. Ostensibly, the series is intriguingly structured, enough so to lull you thinking that Bongo's reminiscing is actually going somewhere - it starts out quite sparse on Bongo's narration, but grows progressively text heavy as it runs on, to the point where comparatively little space is allocated to the cartoons themselves. Bongo grows more invested in the diary as he goes, giving the impression that Groening is building toward something, a climax or a final punchline, only the series doesn't have much of a pay-off, ending almost as haphazardly as it began. The closest Bongo has to an arc is that his youthful aspirations of becoming President of the United States are dashed over the course of the series; early on, Bongo identifies this as his main motivation for wanting to document his early years, but in the final installment comes to the realisation, apropos of nothing, that he will never be president and decides to call his writing project quits, only to briefly revive the diary in order to cover his completion of the 5th Grade. Is there actually a deeper subtext to be mined here, or is Groening just stringing together a collection of random anecdotes about the banalities of schooling and pulling the plug once he's dragged it out far enough? I've scanned this series pretty thoroughly, and every time I find myself gazing into a mind-numbing abyss of chocolate toothpaste, X-ray specs and tiger urine (one of the few really joyous memories recorded by Bongo is his pure bedazzled awe at seeing a circus tiger urinate atop a ball which its trainer subsequently puts their hand upon). This isn't the kind of childhood nostalgia you end up yearning for whenever adult life seems bleak and overwhelming. But then as deep down we all comprehend too well, Childhood Is Hell.

There's not much of a narrative thread running throughout Bongo's Diary, but we do see a few prominent recurring themes - chiefly Bongo's disdain for his class teacher, Mr Shute, and the various draconian punishments dished out to any children who dare step out of line. As I've previously noted, Bongo was in many respects a precursor to Bart, in that Groening used him to channel his own rambunctious childhood energies and his lingering thirst for rebellion, although Bongo had a sadder, more philosophical outlook on life than his spiky-haired brain-sibling. Whereas Bart liked to brandish whatever snap judgements were made of him by adult authority and remold them into badges of honor (hence the infamous "Underachiever and Proud" t-shirt, which was widely misinterpreted and caused a mass controversy among education circles back in 1990), Bongo was deeply troubled by the hypocrisies and general indifference of adult society. In fact, Bongo's quiet alienation and precocious inquisitiveness arguably made him more of a direct predecessor to Lisa than to Bart (the scene in The Simpsons episode "Moaning Lisa" in which Lisa hits Homer with a barrage of complex questions about the state of the world and Homer attempts to deflect the issues with a game of "Homer Horsey" is a characteristically Life In Hell exchange). What the two older Simpsons children have in common is that they are each being failed by adult authority, and contained within Bongo's own uneasy relationship with the full-growns in his life is the germ of a common ancestry to their respective malaise. Bongo is an irrepressible rebel with a tendency to rub authority the wrong way, not least because he's too much of an independent thinker for authority's liking.

The one thing that's notably absent from Bongo's assorted classroom anecdotes is any sense of an obviously functional educational system. If this class are actually learning anything amid the ongoing power struggle between teacher and students, then for the most part Bongo doesn't regard it as notable enough to go in his diary. There are fleeting references to the class watching outdated films on Brazil, paramecia and social awareness, but most of the essays written by Bongo and his classmates are on entirely arbitrary subjects and handed out by Shute as punishments - which, as a final statement on the futility of their personal endeavors, he proceeds to rip to shreds the instant they are handed in. Shute isn't concerned with supporting his charges' learning so much as forcing them to come to terms with the fact that they are at the whims of a hierarchy where the empowered kick mercilessly downward. And yet, the great irony of the series is that Bongo's ostensible indifference toward his school education is belied by the highly academic nature of his interest in the number of students who fall foul of Shute's authority, providing daily statistics and even going so far as to compile his data into a graph. In fact, I would argue that this is the real underlying gag of the series (aside from the obvious, "Christ, childhood was dull! If you ever catch me getting nostalgic for that time then you know that I've lost it"). Bongo is quite clearly implementing his own education throughout the series, one that seems preoccupied with the cosmic cruelty of the universe, and with the general chaos lurking behind the adults' insistence on a veneer of order and respectability. Shute may be mean and unpleasant, but he's clearly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to those wild and wacky adults. In one strip, Bongo stumbles upon a discarded newspaper filled with lurid stories about parents spanking their children to death, among other things; his morbid fascination with the item appears to be fueled by it confirming his suspicions of the barely-concealed sadism and brutality underpinning grown-up jurisdiction, and that adult existence is anarchic and nihilistic to a degree that puts his own schoolyard banalities in the shade (the same paper contains a story about a man who was decapitated while crawling under a train). The adult duplicity documented by Bongo throughout his diary ranges from the tediously exploitative (the false X-Ray specs that Bongo is dissuaded by his friend Spike from blowing a full dollar on) to the just plain daffy (the promotional piece he reads on The Hollow Earth, an actual book published in 1964 and written by a Dr Raymond Bernard - real name Walter Seigmeister - positing that the Earth is hollow and was once home to alien civilisations; Bongo dismisses Bernard's assertions as fake, which is probably a good call).

Such is Bongo's dedication to his independent research that the real punchline of "My 5th Grade Diary" occurs not in the eighth and final installment, but in the seventh, wherein the final panel includes an entry noting the mysterious obliteration of his project: "When I got to school I couldn't find my graph. I looked all over for it, but it was gone. I don't think anyone took it." The single lifeline that gave Bongo's 5th Grade existence purpose and structure winds up being inexplicably swallowed up by the merciless abyss that threatens to engulf them all. Bongo's efforts were all in vain, with no explanation being offered for this vanity; his graph's sudden non-existence is nothing more than yet another facet of the entirely arbitrary cruelty of this meaningless universe. Still, life goes on, and Bongo's mournful ruminations on the fate of his graph are immediately succeeded by a seemingly sincere observation about a female classmate, Annie (represented by Snarla, Bongo's Lisa Simpson-esque feline companion), whom Bongo identifies as "pretty nice for a girl, I think". Perhaps Bongo is broadening his horizons and learning to look beyond the preconceptions which have governed much of his schoolyard ken up until now (very little mention is given to Bongo's female classmates throughout, but where they are brought up, they clearly are regarded as the other). A less elevating approach is that these are the first fledgling signs of puberty rearing their head in our leporine hero, signalling that Bongo's slow-burning induction into the adult world he distrusts and abhors has just begun, and undermining his naive assumptions, in the final installment, that his completion of the 5th Grade equals the acquisition of freedom for his preteen id. For Bongo, the nightmare is merely gearing itself up for renewal, the 5th Grade being but one of many rites in an inevitable succession, but for now Groening is happy to leave us with the final image of Bongo racing merrily through the street, exalted in the belief that the hardest years are now firmly behind him. Don't get too complacent, Bongo, for there are plenty more Shutes lurking further along that road. (Actually, one comes away with the impression that Shute wasn't quite the cold-blooded monster that Bongo made out. Some girls in the class liked him enough to want to buy him a radio to mark their leaving the 5th Grade, although in the end he had to settle for pencils.)

PS: There is a gag in the eighth installment in which Bongo runs afoul of Mr Shute simply for groaning and is kicked out of the classroom, whereupon he muses that "Until I write again, I remain Matt Groening!" I'm sure there's a cute pun in there somewhere. Actually, my main takeaway from the online reaction to Disenchantment last year was just how many YouTubers are apparently confused to the correct pronunciation of Groening's name. Such was my frustration that I exercised a strict policy whereby any reviewer referring to him as "Matt Groaning" was immediately abandoned. That may seem harsh, but they've spoken his name a few times on The Simpsons, so no excuses.

PPS: I don't watch review videos on YouTube much any more.