Thursday, 30 May 2019

Twilight Zone '85: The Elevator (aka Why Does Ross Not Simply Eat The Other Five?)

 Very well.

There's a general consensus among TV viewers that the mid-1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, though it came nowhere close to capturing the magic and intrigue of Rod Serling's original series, was an enjoyable show in its own right and yielded its fair share of legitimate classics -  "A Little Peace and Quiet", "Nightcrawlers" and "The Shadow Man" being commonly-cited candidates in round-ups of the series' strongest contributions to television culture (myself, I'm fond of the oft-overlooked "Wordplay"). One installment that you're less likely to encounter in such lists is an eleven-minute curiosity piece entitled "The Elevator", which is so poorly regarded among the show's viewership that many are shocked to discover that it was written by none other than horror/science fiction master Ray Bradbury. On a Twilight Zone forum I frequented some years back, I encountered very little praise for this segment, one criticism that particularly stood out coming from a user who attributed their intense dislike of "The Elevator" to the fact that it put them so strongly in mind of that devilishly inane Night Gallery installment, "The Nature of The Enemy". Being one of that segment's few really ardent supporters, my immediate response would be to query why that's necessarily a bad thing. But I can see the logic in the comparison. Both stories involve humans being menaced by gigantic versions of ordinarily tiny creatures in unexpected places. Both have to do with humankind's underestimation of the natural world, but whereas Serling's story was a cautionary jab at man's hubristic assumptions that his technological advancements have enabled him to transcend the rest of the natural kingdom, Bradbury's story is more concerned with mankind's attempts to interfere with and modify nature to his own ends, and potentially to his own detriment. The off-screen scientist who plays an crucial role in the events of "The Elevator" has perfectly noble intentions for doing what he does, but in the end that may not matter. For nature is entirely indifferent to such things.

"The Elevator" follows two young brothers, Will (Stephen Geoffreys) and Roger (Robert Prescott), who arrive at a derelict old factory after dark in the hopes of locating their father, an eccentric scientist who has been conducting illicit experiments with the goal of manufacturing a nutritious and inexpensive foodstuff that will eradicate world hunger. Will and Roger break into the building and, noticing their father's footprints in the dusty factory floor, deduce that he has been there tonight and is likely still in the vicinity. As the brothers make their way through the darkened factory, they stumble across the carcasses of several freakishly large rats, each one bigger than the last. They then find the body of a monstrously large house cat, followed by the body of an even bigger dog. Continuing their search, they find the supply of foodstuff that their father was developing - long, icky strands of concentrated protein. The brothers deduce that the animals became huge after gorging on the protein-rich foodstuff, and that the dog and the cat might have killed the rats, but what in turn killed both of them? Obviously, no sensible person would want to stick around and find out, but the brothers, being evident dimwits, decide to keep venturing ever deeper into the building, until they reach the elevator at the back and manage to get it working again. The elevator doors open up to reveal...a humongous spider, which proceeds to drag the screaming brothers upwards while mauling them into bloody pulps -  although I only realised that the creature in question was a spider because one of the brothers is considerate enough to shout out "My god, it's a spider!" right before it kills him. The spider is represented largely as an obscure shadowy shape with a multitude of legs, which is fairly unconvincing and leads us into one of the obvious shortcomings of "The Elevator" - that is, the visual effects in general are hilariously ropy. This is as true for the various dead animals seen throughout as the climactic arachnid; the giant rats look like plush toys, the giant "house cat" is blatantly a moth-eaten stuffed cougar plucked from the back of someone's attic, and we don't even get a semi-decent look at the giant dog.

Anyway, that's the end. The fate of the boys' father is never explicitly revealed, but it can be assumed that he also fell victim to the giant spider that predated everything else.

The first time I saw "The Elevator" I really didn't take to it, in part because I was absolutely flabbergasted by the perceived cheapness of its ending. I didn't get why Bradbury had chosen to sacrifice such a macabre, skin-crawling and devilishly disgusting scenario on something as moronic and out of left field as a giant spider. The whole thing actually reminded me a lot of the opening sequence to Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) with Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd, in that it's an enjoyable segment that looks as if it's building up toward something worthwhile, only to close suddenly and randomly on a crude shock moment that emerges seemingly from nowhere. Say what you will about the ending to "The Nature of The Enemy", but it is an actual punchline. You might not think that it's a particularly good punchline or that the joke in question works, but the segment has clearly been laying the ground for it from the start. The conclusion to the Brooks/Aykroyd opener, on the other hand, feels less like a punchline than a straight-up non-sequitur and, initially, that's how I felt about "The Elevator" too - in fact, "The Elevator" went a step further, in playing like an anti-narrative, deliberately short-circuiting just when you think it's about to get started. Such was my frustration with "The Elevator" that I wound up giving it a lot more thought than I did a great many stronger installments from the series. The more I kept turning it over and over in my mind, the more I began to wonder if I had perhaps misjudged the segment; that the spider element wasn't quite as moronic or out of left field as I'd initially assumed. And before I knew it I had convinced myself that, to the contrary, it was total genius. Well-played, Bradbury, well-played.

I'm still not saying that "The Elevator" is a great segment, mind. There's an awful lot that doesn't work about it. But its failures rest largely with the execution - the inferior visual effects, the flatness of the final spider reveal, the hamminess of some of the dialogue delivery (for an example of that, see Geoffreys' reaction when he sees the dead cat). It all adds up to produce a short which, superficially, seems shoddily put-together (although the eerie atmosphere at the factory is well-sustained throughout). But Bradbury did his bit and delivered a fun and macabre story with a meaningful sting in the tail.

Marisou, covering "The Elevator" on TZ review blog Postcards From The Zone, observes that, "this episode probably lost a lot of its punch outside the original airing slot - if you watched this when it aired, you probably expected the brothers to climb to the second floor first and got pleasantly shocked...watching on DVD, the timer feature tells you clearly something is gonna happen as they call the elevator mere seconds before the episode ends." I agree that Bradbury's sleight of hand, in manipulating and subverting our narrative expectations, is integral to the success of the story, but I think it amounts to more than a simple "gotcha!" moment that swings in marginally sooner than we expect it. The key to that, I'd say, is to consider the array of dead animals we'd encountered up until that point. The order of discovery goes rats, cat, dog. Notice a pattern there? Of course you do. It's a food chain. And what sits higher than a dog on the ladder of consumption? Certainly not a spider. Obviously, when that monstrous arachnid appears we know that something's gone very badly wrong here (the first hint of food chain subversion occurs earlier on, when Roger remarks that perhaps their father was looking to breed giant rats in order to get back at the cats). At first, the spider seems like a baffling non-sequitur, since it completely defies the logical progress we'd been making with our furry foodies, but I'd say that's precisely the point. The food chain is severely out of whack and, thanks to the reckless (albeit well-intentioned) experimentation of that unseen crackpot, that unassuming spider has managed to rocket its way right to the top. You might even say that it was elevated, no? Sure, the literal elevator had its part to play, but the real elevator to which the title alludes was the modified foodstuff that enabled the spider to get well ahead of the assorted mammalians in whose shadows it had previously dwelled.

The spider represents a sharp disturbance to our narrative and logical assumptions, prompting the question as to what exactly we did expect the brothers to find on the second, or even third floor? Again, what comes after dog in the natural progression? Obviously, there's man. Were we supposed to assume that the boys' father had been sampling his own foodstuff and was mutating beyond recognition? I don't recall if I expected the father to actually be the final monster encountered, but I certainly expected him to play a more direct role in the story's conclusion, and for there to be some exploration of the implications of feeding his modified foodstuff to humans. In the end, though, that particular story thread is rendered entirely irrelevant, as our place atop the natural order is usurped by that eight-legged freak.

Curiously, while researching for this piece I came across multiple online synopses for "The Elevator" claiming that our protagonists break into their father's factory with the intention of stealing his anti-famine foodstuff and selling it for profit. Even the official DVD synopsis states that "two brothers stealing their father's growth serum developed to ensure a plentiful food supply may have bitten off more than they can chew." Really now, I will not allow Will and Roger's names to be sullied, because there's nothing in the segment itself to indicate that they have any intention of stealing their father's work and selling it for their own gain. As far as I can tell, they're just there to find their father - one of the brothers, Roger, doesn't even believe that his dad's experimentation is of any value. I can only assume that some viewers feel uneasy about the gruesome end these characters meet and need to factor in some sense of karmic justice, as to reassure themselves that the brothers got what they deserved because they were avaricious little shits. "The Elevator" does well to avoid such on-the-nose moralising; it's a cautionary tale, for sure, but a good part of that caution comes from its rude reminders that nature doesn't actually give a damn about human morality - the innocent taste as good as the guilty to a hungry predator, and that the boys' father may have had the purest of intentions ultimately doesn't alter the fact that his hubristic attempts to fiddle around with nature spelled disaster for both himself and his sons. It's fair to say that, if nothing else, Will and Roger pay the price for their stupidity - the cat and dog, if alive, were certainly large enough to have killed them, so I'm not sure why they suppose they'd have any chance against whatever killed the cat and dog - and yet I get the sense that that stupidity is intended to translate into a naivety emblematic of humankind's general complacency in assuming that it has the inherent privilege of sitting atop the natural order come what may. One tip too far in that delicate balance, and we might discover that we're as fair game as anything else. When Roger runs his hand across the grotesque mutated proteins his father has been spawning, he remarks that, "It's like raw's food, for them," gesturing toward the multitude of dead creatures. Plainly, it never occurs to him that he himself is composed of raw meat, and therefore food for something.

In the end, I cannot claim to like "The Elevator" half as much as I do "The Nature of The Enemy", but then I suppose my personal biases are leaking through (since rat horror happens to be my specialty). And for all my criticisms regarding the execution of "The Elevator", I would be lying if I said that it didn't disturb me on some raw, fundamental level. There's something about the entire notion of a giant spider that taps into a very visceral fear of mine, and trust me when I say that I'm no arachnophobe. I'm certainly not one of one of those people who freaks out every time I see a spider hanging from my lampshade. And yet, of all the members of the animal kingdom, a giant spider is one that my gut instincts tell me I least want to be killed by. I need to trust my gut on that.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Night Gallery: The Nature of The Enemy (aka Those Wretched Omnivorous Murids!)

The Night Gallery segment "The Nature of The Enemy" is another of those media specimens that you won't hear a positive word about, except on these pages. The general consensus among Night Gallery fans is that "The Nature of The Enemy" is the kind of witless tosh that gave the series, Rod Serling's attempt at a follow-up to his game-changing hit The Twilight Zone, its reputation as an ersatz paranormal anthology. Although widely regarded as one of Serling's lesser brainchildren, Night Gallery can claim some historical significance, in that on of the stories featured in the pilot episode, "Eyes", provided Stephen Spielberg with his first directorial gig and Joan Crawford with one of her final acting roles. And it should be noted that, despite its lowlier status in the television hierarchy, Night Gallery is still a reasonably iconic series, being referenced in both The Simpsons episode, "Treehouse of Horror IV" and the Tiny Toon Adventures episode, "Night Ghoulery". Having said that, it seems that people are more enchanted by the series set-up (that is, Serling wandering around a deserted art gallery and delivering characteristically ominous introductions) than any of the individual stories. You seldom hear much discussion on the Night Gallery tales themselves as you do with The Twilight Zone, and while twist endings abound across both series, Night Gallery never had a twist that stuck in the public consciousness with anywhere near the same vigor as "It's a cook book!" or "I'm a mannequin!" But if any Night Gallery episode deserves to be remembered for its twist ending, it's "The Nature of The Enemy". Trust me, an ending this unashamedly, mind-bogglingly absurd is one to be cherished for the ages.

But then, I've mentioned previously just how enamored I am with rat horror, and "The Nature of The Enemy" offers a pretty unique entry into the rat horror canon. Once again, we find ourselves in the vicinity of Das Teufel Nagetier, only instead of attacking yuppies in their pristine suburban homes, this one lives on the moon and has a taste for NASA scientists. That's the twist, anyway. We're not supposed to know that this source of lunar terror is an oversized rat until the very end of the segment, so let's back up and take a look first at how we arrive at this confounding predicament.

"The Nature of The Enemy" first aired on December 23rd 1970 as part of the second installment of the show's first season. It was the final segment of the episode, following on from "Room with a View" (of which I struggle to recall the details) and "The Little Black Bag" (which has a fairly traditional plot in the Twilight Zone mold, but tonally there's something very off about it - the mean-spiritedness of its ending is matched only by the heavy-handedness of its moralising). It ran for a paltry ten minutes, making it one of the series' briefer offerings. The segment centres on a dialogue between NASA mission control leader Simms (Joseph Campanella) and an astronaut exploring the surface of the moon (Richard Van Vleet) as they attempt to uncover what became of two previous missions with whom contact has been inexplicably lost, although one of the two first managed to send out a distress call indicating that they were under attack. In between communications with the astronaut, Simms also must contend with a barrage of reporters (led by James B. Sikking and Jason Wingreen) demanding to know if the Russians or the Chinese are the most probable saboteurs. But of course they're thinking too small. The true identity of the assailant is hinted, wittily, in the segment's title, for the enemy is not concerned with any kind of national or political affinity but is in fact good old Mother Nature reminding mankind that, no matter how far he ascends up the technological ladder, there is to be no elevating of himself above her. By the end of the segment, it seems that Van Vleet's astronaut too has fallen victim to the mysterious attacker, but not before uncovering an equally baffling metallic artifact which was apparently assembled by the missing astronauts; mission control are left scratching their heads back on Earth...until a transmission enables Simms to get a clear glimpse of what they're up against. As it turns out, the astronauts were predated by a giant rat who resides on the moon, whom they unsuccessfully tried to bring down by constructing a giant mousetrap. The segment ends with Simms exclaiming in disbelief, "The enemy...that's the enemy!", as the rat rears upwards on its hind legs, becoming taller than the NASA-built contraption, almost as if taunting its terrestrial onlookers with its prepotency.

As noted, a large number of viewers revile this ending, and while I'll profess to having a great amount of affection for the segment, I can understand perfectly where its detractors are coming from. Tonally, "The Nature of The Enemy" is a bizarrely unbalanced piece, one which starts out with the promise of heading to darker and more sobering territory than it ultimately does. In his introduction, Serling describes the episode as "suggestive perhaps of some of the question marks that await us in the stars, and perhaps pointing up the moment when we’ll collect something other than moon rocks." And it has to be said that "The Nature of The Enemy" does appear to be taking itself completely seriously until the point that Van Vleet stumbles across that giant mousetrap; Campanella, certainly, plays his role with an entirely straight face throughout. With that in mind, I think a lot of viewers are disappointed to discover that this intriguing set-up amounts to such a hokey punchline. Even with the segment's brief running time, they feel cheated. There's the added issue that "The Nature of The Enemy" was written by Serling himself, and viewers generally have a lot of trust in his vision (after all, he penned the script to Planet of The Apes, a much more thoughtful and affecting examination of man's anthropocentric assumptions about the universe and what the age of space exploration could potentially mean for that). David Juhl, in his online review of the segment, complains that it "harkens back to the many cheap-o sci fi movies from the 1950s", although I would actually go a step further and assert that the sight of that giant mousetrap on the moon pushes it into the iconography of Tom and Jerry cartoons. And to my mind, that's a jolly good thing. Sure, it's inane, but there's a likeable kind of character to its inanity, a bemusing mix of the darkly ominous and the cartoonishly surreal.

Juhl also states that "The sight of [a] giant mouse terrorizing the human colonists of the moon is an unintentionally hilarious one and ruins what had to that point been an intriguing enough story with a certain amount of tension over what the rescue mission would find on the moon." I have to disagree with Juhl on the "unintentionally hilarious" point, as I suspect that the undeniable humour of the ending was indeed all-too intentional. It's far too ludicrous and off-the-wall not to be. Having studied this segment ample times, I'm not convinced that it wasn't Serling's intention all along to bait the viewer with an ostensibly po-faced scenario, only to pull the rug out from under them at the end with this unexpectedly daffy conclusion. In other words, it was Serling's idea of a practical joke, a little light dessert to follow on from the longer, heavier (and far less digestible) "The Little Black Box". He may have misjudged just how effectively this would work in practice, however. Also, I note that Juhl misidentifies the animal we see at the end as a mouse. Rookie mistake. Alas, if you come away with the impression that those NASA astronauts were mauled by a mouse then you miss out on a subtle bit of wordplay from earlier on in the segment, when Simms assures the reporters that the communication from the missing team merely sounded like "we're under attack" but that they were never able to verify that final word. The script exploits the fact that "attack" and "a rat" have the same number of syllables and identical vowel sounds. So the real message, implied by the ending, was "we're under a rat"! In retrospect, the segment begins laying the ground for its daft conclusion well in advance of that giant lunar mousetrap.

Still, I suspect what ultimately disappoints viewers about "The Nature of The Enemy" is that, for all the solemnity of Serling's introduction, it fades out with apparently nothing very much serious to say. It's a baleful science fiction short that willfully mutates into a particularly twisted Merry Melodies cartoon and comes to an abrupt halt, prompting the question as to whether there's any deeper meaning to be harvested beyond Serling's flippant sleight of hand. While I very much doubt that Serling considered predation by giant moon rats a potential hazard for humans venturing into outer space, in the early days of space exploration, "The Nature of The Enemy" might have tapped into the uncertainty as to what humankind might discover out there, and the possibility that, in leaving our world and venturing into the vast unknown, we risked forfeiting our status as the dominant species. The surface of the moon becomes the new wilderness, eerily barren and yet tinged with the uneasy sensation that there's something else out there lurking among those moon rocks. But even then, Serling appears to jokingly subvert this by taking the very familiar, domestic scenario of rodent control and planting it within the strange and alien context of lunar exploration. I think that, again, the title provides clues as to how we are to interpret this story, in prompting us to consider just what kind of enemy we are dealing with. We know from the start that all this talk of the Russians and the Chinese intercepting the mission will turn out to be a gigantic red herring and that the characters, too busy looking inward to comprehend the bigger picture, will swiftly discover that such earthly divisions are meaningless when weighted against the indifference of a wider universe. Ultimately, though, the point it appears to be making has to do with man's hubristic assumptions that he can disconnect himself from the rest of nature (I think the final shot of the rat standing taller than the trap is really key in this regard). I've seen it suggested that the significance of having a large murid roaming across the moon should be viewed as nothing more substantial than as a play on that old cliche about the moon being made of cheese, but I would contend that the ending goes a whisker deeper than that, in linking the conflict to man's age-old enmity with the creature that's long insisted on following him on his journey from wilderness to urban domesticity, and is reputed to never be more than six feet away from him. The other rat race, in other words. That these NASA astronauts meet their match in such a familiar household pest (as opposed to something genuinely alien) is basically the point - that hulking rat is there to remind them that Nature is still the more powerful force and that, by turning his attention to the stars, man is not transcending Nature so much as gearing up to continue their contention in a whole other setting.

In the end, it's probably futile for me to keep on banging my drum on "The Nature of The Enemy". Fact is, I love this segment for precisely the reasons that other people scorn it. It's about a giant man-eating rat that lives on the moon, and if you don't already see the charm in that, then I certainly can't help you.

Note: The 1980s Twilight Zone revival boasts a short segment entitled "The Elevator" which follows a similar structure to "The Nature of The Enemy", and gets about as much respect from that show's viewership. It was written by...Ray Bradbury, of all people. The story also involves giant rats, only these ones are all fresh out of the taxidermist shop and and are only "giant" in the sense that they're meant to be the size of house cats. Although I don't harbour anywhere near the same kind of fondness for "The Elevator" as I do "The Nature of The Enemy" - in part because stories centred on giant [redacted] don't appeal to me nearly as much as stories centered on giant rats - I'll say that the twist, while very shoddily executed, is actually a lot cleverer than people give it credit for. I can't claim that I lose any reverence for Bradbury watching it, because the script definitely has the makings of a simple but smart story. The meaning of the segment is again implicit in the title - a literal elevator does feature prominently in the segment, but for the purposes of this particular macabre tale it's also a metaphor.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #14: Bacardi Breezer Tomcat (aka The Secret Life of Monty The Mouth)

Spuds MacKenzie might have been the self-proclaimed "Original Party Animal" (the fact that his shtick was pilfered from an earlier beer-shilling canine, Alex of Stroh's, notwithstanding), but his cheerful brand of carousing antics couldn't help but seem hopelessly declawed and domesticated when compared to the feline counterpart who would later hustle in and mark his territory all over the clubbing scene. In the age-old war between dogs and cats, the cats played their hand fairly late in the game this particular round - the boozing pooches had long had their day and Spuds was little more than a dwindled pop cultural memory by the time the world was introduced to Tom, a hedonistic tabby cat who loved the nightlife and enjoyed a two-year tenure as the advocate for Bacardi Breezer alcopops in the early 00s. In concocting the alcohol-endorsing mascot with a better idea of how to live fast and leave a beautiful legacy, I'd say the cats can claim an easy victory here. Were the four-legged Lotharios ever to face off in a partying showdown, you just know that Tom would scratch Spuds' eyes out and serve them as cocktail olives.

What has to be said about Spuds MacKenzie is that I never bought him as even half the party animal his ads purported him to be, in that he never exhibited a huge amount of personality, period. A bull terrier dressed in shades and a Hawaiian shirt and with bunch of human groupies trailing him around will get you a few chintzy images but does not in itself a charismatic mascot make. If not for the weird zoophilic undertones that pervaded his ads through those legions of adoring Spudettes, I doubt that the Spuds campaign would have had much in the way of character at all. Tom, on the other hand, truly was a creature of the night - he was wild, mean and a little bit cutthroat. And goddamn, that feline could dance.

The "Tomcat" campaign, which got its start in 2001, incorporated many of the same elements of Bud Light's Spuds campaign (in that both were housepets whose insatiable lust for the high life made them immensely popular with the ladies) but in a manner that seemed like a dark mirror image of the bull terrier's bright and luxurious world. Whereas with Spuds, the central joke pivoted on the fact that nobody within the ads ever acknowledged that the object of their admirations was just a dog dolled up in people clothing (it was kind of like Animaniacs' Chicken Boo in that regard), "Tomcat" embraced the animalistic nature of its star and, instead of dragging the cat into the human world, attempted to play his human cohorts as an extension of that. Louis Creed, the protagonist of Stephen King's Pet Sematary, made the observation that, "Cats were the gangsters of the animal world, living outside the law and often dying there," and that's something you certainly get a flavour of in Bacardi Breezer's campaign, with its dark, sleazy and slightly dangerous milieu. Tom had a bit of a narrative going, living a prosaic life as the docile companion to a benign old lady during the diurnal hours, but come the night and he was transformed into a raving beast. Classic cat duality, only in place of butchering garden wildlife and leaving their innards sprawled across his owner's doorstep, Tom went out in pursuit of an altogether different kind of thrill.

The campaign offered a witty immersion into the Jekyll and Hyde-isms of not merely our feline friends, but also the human nightcrawlers who allow their ferociousness to hang out in full force in the wee hours, suggesting, in a manner not too dissimilar to the original Clive the Schweppes Leopard commercial, that the real wilderness is to be located right there upon the sticky barroom floor. Tom's world felt alive and exhilarating but distinctively off-kilter, as if the exuberance could give way to savagery at any moment. Various installments featuring Tom's nocturnal adventures trickled out across the following two years, including one ad spoofing the infamous music video to "Smack My Bitch Up" by UK rave group The Prodigy, and another containing the obligatory (for the time) parody of The Matrix. Tom was very much the alpha male of his nightly territory, and it wasn't wise to challenge him, as one opportunistic dog lover learned the hard way when Tom dunked a live goldfish in his tonic water. But despite being such a partying pro, Tom was not entirely invincible and the ads would also give us intermittent glimpses into the consequences of his crapulent lifestyle. The original ad concludes with Tom stumbling through the catflap at dawn in a visibly hungover state, while another has his owner calling in a vet to examine Tom's dancefloor-induced lethargy. Each of these closed with a punchline delivered by Tom's nonplussed owner, who unwittingly alluded to the cat's philandering nature when she asked him if he'd been out chasing birds, or if the love mark on his paw had been left by a fox ("bird" and "fox" both being notable slang terms), followed by a nightmare-fueling close-up shot of Tom making some kind of lurid facial expression at the camera.

If Tom strikes you as eerily familiar-looking, then odds are that you know him as Monty The Mouth, the garrulous, Steve Zahn-voiced chum of Snowbell the Persian in the Stuart Little films. Tom was portrayed by a threesome of felines, Merlin, Magoo and Murphy, at least two of whom also played Monty in the 2002 sequel Stuart Little 2 (this Guardian article implies that all three cats shared acting duties in Stuart Little 2, although this American Humane Association commentary only mentions Merlin and Magoo). Regrettably, I have not uncovered any confirmation that any of these cats portrayed Monty in the original Stuart Little film from 1999.

Tom's campaign was weird and intense, but reasonably short-lived (albeit no more so than Spuds MacKenzie's), with Tom receiving his last hurrah in 2003. The final ad took an unexpectedly harrowing turn, in having Tom cross the road to get to his nightly hang-out, only to walk directly into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Was Tom, who had lived outside the law for so long, about to meet the kind of unceremonious fate prophesied by Louis Creed? It looked awfully grim for a few terrifying moments, as Tom's entire life flashed before his eyes, including several replays of clips from previous installments. Thankfully, the car managed to stop mere inches from Tom, and and the cat lived to wriggle his tush for yet another boogie night. The ad ended with him assuming the car's passenger seat and riding off triumphantly into the twilight. Except that it's 2019, and odds are that Merlin, Magoo and Murphy have by now all gone the way of Sassy The Hang In There Baby Kitten. That's kind of a downer.

Although I've compared Spuds MacKenzie unfavourably to Tom at several points throughout this piece, what also has to be said about Spuds is that enough people do still remember him. The vapidity of his campaign notwithstanding, he nestled his way into the cozy bosom of nostalgia, meaning that you'll get the occasional nod in popular culture or official throwback ad. Tom I can't say I've heard much mention of since his own campaign wrapped. He partied hard but left little trace outside of the wonderful body of ads that are currently up for scavenging on online media sites. But then Spuds' a dog and Tom's a cat, and perhaps it's only fitting that the latter should have exited our lives as furtively he wandered in, an elusive spirit who had his fun and then slunk off into the night as soon as he was done. Whatever became of Tom? Who knows; he was never our beast to tether down.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #13: The Tiger In Your Chicken Coop (Guinness)

In the late 1990s, Irish draught stout Guinness continued their "Not Everything in Black and White Makes Sense"  campaign with an ad lampooning our susceptibility for a neatly-packaged statistic that at the same time found ways to unnerve us with more bizarre imagery featuring freakishly misplaced animals. Of all the ads in the "Black and White" campaign, "Statistics" stands out to me as, if not the strangest of the lot (that particular honor was bagged by "Fishing is Madness"), then the one which held the greatest emotional resonance for me. It's as baffling and nightmarish as you'd come to expect from Guinness (or a good proportion of 90s advertising) at this stage, but there's something disarmingly poignant about this one too. In part, I put this down to the stirring background music, taken from "The First Big Weekend", a 1996 single for Scottish indie duo Arab Strap, in which vocalist Aidan Moffat describes a memorable weekend of sleeping on European cup matches and watching Simpsons clip shows charting the characters' various failed romances. Here we have actor Enn Reitel reeling off a series of statistics in a manner designed to evoke Moffat's deadpan, matter-of-fact narration. Reitel's voiceover is beguiling enough that it's tempting to take his statements at face value. As with "Fishing", though, the ad climaxes with a quotation that seems intended to flip everything we've just seen upon its head - in this case, the wry observations of comedian Vic Reeves, who warns us that, "88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot." In other words, if you actually did swallow any of these nuggets as concrete truths then you were a grade A sucker. So, the question the ad ultimately poses would be why such an unlikely collection of figures (which, somewhere in the back of our brains, we all intuitively sense are perhaps a bit suspect) should prove so alluring to our credulous brains.

Some of these statistics do have the ring of credibility (we all know that cows are tremendously gassy animals, and I'm not sure about 98%, but given Manchester United's global popularity, it wouldn't surprise me if the percentage of fans who've never visited Old Trafford was in the high zone). Others seem less probable (88% of clowns never fall in love? Nope, not buying that one - when the make-up's off, clowns are just the same as anyone else). I'd say that the appeal of the ad lies broadly in how it evokes the various uncanny connections that enable individuals from seemingly divergent walks of life to intersect, some of which seem hilariously ironic (the convent-educated strippers), while others have darker implications (the Ku Klux Klan one). The Manchester United sequence offers the most heartening example of the lot, in illustrating the extent to which humans the world over can be allied by a common affinity.

The real curiosity of the ad, though, would be the portion that occurs at about thirty-six seconds in, when we're treated to the unnerving imagery of a tiger prowling through a darkened neighbourhood, terrorising a coop of resident chickens as Reitel informs us that, "Every year over 300 animals escape from zoos and circuses." The tiger, a lone, shadowy beast, stands in ominous contrast to the flock of brightly-coloured chickens who, boxed in behind a wall of wire mesh, signify a kind of orderly, prosaic domesticity. The climax of the sequence, which sees predator and prey each losing their cool and letting loose tumultuous cries is hair-raising stuff; indeed, it was a showdown that proved almost too intense for me as a kid, and I was well-accustomed to feeling a tight knot in my stomach every time that eerily unlit street loomed into view (of course, it's all down to the tautness of the editing, since the tiger and the chickens never appear within the same frame and were blatantly nowhere near one another in real life). And yet I have to admit that my empathy was always with the fugitive tiger. He might be approaching those unfortunate chickens in the manner of a slasher villain closing in on a prospective target, and the sight of the burly striped cat rubbing shoulders with a couple of nondescript trash cans seems almost gut-wrenchingly surreal, but at the same time there's a loud and irrepressible part of me that can't help but rejoice that this magnificent beast has made a bid for freedom and now has the world at his paws. Still, this isn't the kind of wilderness that a tiger hopes to uncover when fleeing his captors, and our feline interloper, despite his threatening presence, comes off as the really vulnerable one in this scenario, in that he's visibly out of his element within the neatly-trimmed gardens of modern development. A loose circus animal trampling around your dustbins in the dead of night is a nightmare image for sure, but there's the sense that the tiger, far from being an intruder in these urban environs, is simply a stranger in a strange land, a wild beast attempting to reconnect with a wilderness that's been warped beyond all recognition.

Does the sequence have any significance regarding the ad's broader theme of uncanny and ironic connections? Yes, insofar as suggesting that not everything can be so easily boxed in and compartmentalised. Elsewhere in the ad, there's a lot of emphasis upon the nature of identity, partly in its exploration of the assumptions made by a society that's forever seeking to pigeonhole according to superficial preconceptions (odds are that most don't think too deeply about a stripper's education or a clown's love life, and that old "men think about sex every six seconds" cliche is one heck of a dumb stereotype), but also the masks and labels we willfully assume in assimilating our personal identities into the ideologies of a wider body, be it something as benign as a sports team's global fanbase (although even that has the potential to turn ugly) or a group with a far more abhorrent agenda. Perhaps that lonesome liberated tiger, and his ability to ruffle the feathers of a flock of homogeneous chickens, stands as a call to walk on the wild side, stay true to one's independent spirit and defy classification.

I can't ascribe any deeper significance to that cow statistic, however.

Incidentally, I think there may have been a variation on this ad that included another statistic about the percentile of women who find men with beards and mustaches sexually attractive. All accompanied by a queasy close-up shot of a mustached man downing spoonfuls yogurt and getting tiny flecks of it in his whiskers. It was enough to put you off yogurt (and mustaches) for life.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

In Defence of Another Simpsons Clip Show (aka Detached Tales of Modern Alienation)

Last time, when I gave my run-down on The Simpsons' very first stab at a clip show, "So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show" from Season 4, I made multiple references to my unlikely position in preferring the show's second clip show, the indifferently-titled "Another Simpsons Clip Show" of Season 6 (Episode 2F33), which first aired on September 25th 1994. To say that this is a minority opinion would be putting it awfully mildly, for the episode is by and far one of the most frowned-upon of the series' "classic" run. Erik Adams, in his review on The AV Club, is polite in his assessment but calls it a "knowingly empty vessel." On the episode's DVD commentary, the production crew joke that it has few fans and in lieu of discussing the episode itself, use the opportunity to take listeners through the writing process. Meanwhile, Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood of I Can't Believe It's An Unofficial Simpsons Guide assess it as "as good as a clip show can be", inadvertently betraying their lack of enthusiasm in giving it a near-identical review to that which they'd previously awarded "So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show". You won't hear many doting words about "Another Simpsons Clip Show" in general, so I guess I've set myself up to roll up my sleeves and provide probably the only really impassioned defence of this episode that you're ever going to come across.

First though, I want to draw attention to"The First Big Weekend", a 1996 single by Scottish indie duo Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton (better known as Arab Strap), which also featured on the band's debut album, The Week Never Starts Round Here. The five-minute song, which consists largely of a spoken word monologue read out by a half-bored Moffat, was not a commercial hit, but gained exposure via airplay on DJ John Peel's program on BBC Radio 1, where it made it to No. 2 in his coveted Festive 50. A different version of the song, in which the lyrics were heavily modified to spew off various dubious-sounding statistics, was featured in yet another Guinness advertisement in the "Not Everything in Black and White Makes Sense" campaign of the late 1990s (more on that later). In its original form, the song describes a largely uneventful weekend in the summer of 96. Ostensibly, it's a carefree celebration of the delights of being young and up for absolutely anything, but on closer examination the whole thing reeks of a potent existential despair, the wail of terminally idle souls looking ever more desperately for ways to kill time as they sit about waiting for their lives to begin. It's half celebration, half a cry for help. I don't know how much of this was autobiographical to Moffat and Middleton's own lives, but the lyrics are choc full of the kind of painstakingly tedious detail you don't get unless you are picking away slavishly from real-life, so I'm going to assume that it was a pretty accurate reflection of how they were living back then. The weekend does pick up considerably, however, when The Simpsons become a part of it:

"Sunday afternoon we go up to John's with a lot of beer in time to watch The Simpsons.
It was a really good episode about love always ending in tragedy, except of course for Marge and Homer.
It was quite moving at the end and to tell you the truth my eyes were a bit damp."

Although the dates of the big weekend in question are not specified within the lyrics, the song takes place during the European Football Championship of 1996, and at one point Moffat describes waking up to learn that England had beaten Scotland 2-0. That particular match took place on Saturday 15th June 1996, meaning that the Simpsons episode would have aired on 16th June. The Simpsons made its UK terrestrial debut on BBC a lot later that same year (having been held captive for years as a Sky Television exclusive), so obviously Moffat, Middleton and chums would have been watching the episode on Sky One. From his synopsis, it seems safe to assume that "Another Simpsons Clip Show" was the episode they watched, although my neurotic heart still craves confirmation on that point. For a while, I actually tried to get hold of a copy of the Sky TV Guide for June 1996, just to confirm once and if "Another Simpsons Clip Show" had indeed episode aired on the 16th (it would be an interesting twist if Moffat turned out to be describing another episode altogether), but copies of the guide proved to be more elusive than I'd imagined. For now we'll assume that it's "Another Simpsons Clip Show", and if anybody who still has their copy of Sky Guide from June 96 can confirm either way, then great. What's important is that Arab Strap refer to it as "a really good episode", meaning that they share my minority opinion (although I would remind Moffat and Middleton that Homer and Marge's marriage is a tragedy).

I will admit that I understand precisely where this episode's critics are coming from. It's an unpopular episode because it's a clip show and, unlike "So It's Come To This: Another Simpsons Clip Show", doesn't provide much of a wraparound narrative to get you at least partially invested in how the proceedings pan out - the family spend the overwhelming majority of the episode at the breakfast table talking about how developing romantic urges caused themselves and various other characters to be royally screwed over. It goes on as such, until it reaches its predictable conclusion, which is that Marge and Homer are still together, so I guess there's hope for anyone. In place of a framing story, the episode has its own unique gimmick that might seem either really fascinating or really odious, depending on your perspective. Very little of the animation within this episode is new - nearly all of the framing sequences were created by recycling and redubbing footage from previous episodes. This is is foreshadowed in an early sequence where Bart and Lisa watch an Itchy & Scratchy episode that Lisa identifies as being assembled, Frankenstein-like, from older material, "but it seems new to the trusting eyes of impressionable youth." Some fans may delight in the opportunity to test their Simpsons nerdom and identify which individual moments came from which episodes, but for the majority this gimmick will likely wear thin quickly, at which point the inclination seeps in to dismiss "Another Simpsons Clip Show" as dull. Now believe me, there was a time when I, too, felt very down on this episode and would let out a groan whenever it aired. What eventually improved my view of it was going back and rewatching "Life on The Fast Lane" (a Season 1 episode I never got a great amount out of as a kid) with fresh, adult eyes and being amazed at how emotionally invested I became in the scenario and characters. That episode instantly got a massive upgrade to become one of my Top 5 favourites. And since "Another Simpsons Clip Show" deals extensively with the events of "Life on The Fast Lane", and with their lingering implications, this episode too suddenly became a whole lot more interesting for me. "Another Simpsons Clip Show" cannot reasonably hope to function as a substitute for watching "Life on The Fast Lane", or any of the other episodes it plunders, but it makes for fine supplement viewing.

"Another Simpsons Clip Show" opens with Marge raising that same old question that she and Homer are intermittently forced to confront regarding the questionable state of their marriage: "Do you think the romance has gone out of our lives?" Specifically, this question is prompted by Marge's heartfelt response to The Bridges of Madison County, a 1992 novel by Robert James Waller, and her realising how much she can identify with its corn-fed heroine. I've personally never read Waller's book, although my parents are both fans of the 1995 Clint Eastwood film adaptation, so I've seen that a fair few times. Assuming that the plot of the book is the same as in the film, then yeah, I can totally see why the book would strike such a chord with Marge, because it's pretty much the same plot as "Life on The Fast Lane", except that here the lusty couple actually do get to home run, there's no bowling and the kids are a lot brattier than Bart and Lisa (I happen to think that "Life on The Fast Lane" does this same story far better). Marge worries that their tepid marriage is setting a negative precedent for Bart and Lisa, so the following day attempts to have a frank family discussion about the value of romance. When the rest of the family struggle to get their heads around the concept (even Lisa isn't going for it, insisting that romance acquired in a hostile takeover by Hallmark and Disney, homogensied and sold off piece by piece), Marge attempts to illustrate it by recounting the most romantic interlude she can offer from her own life - that is, her passionate fling with her erstwhile bowling instructor Jacques (from "Life on The Fast Lane"), for whom she had seriously contemplated leaving Homer. Homer is offended by Marge's example and retaliates by recalling the time that he was infatuated with his female co-worker Mindy Simmons (from "The Last Temptation of Homer") and contemplated sleeping with her while on a business trip. Lisa then recalls the time she gave a pity Valentine card to a lovelorn Ralph Wiggum (from "I Love Lisa"), only for him to read too much into her innocent gesture and to hound her to the point where she angrily rebuffed him on live television. Bart remembers his boyish, unrequited crush on his teenage babysitter Laura Powers (from "New Kid on The Block"), who summoned him to a rendezvous point only to announce that she'd hooked up with local miscreant Jimbo Jones. Realising that all of these romances actually ended in failure, the family grows dispirited, but Marge isn't quite willing to give up on her point and looks to the extended family for better examples, citing Selma's marriage to Sideshow Bob (from "Black Widower", which resulted in...yeah, forget that) and the love triangle involving Abe Simpson, Jacqueline Bouvier and Mr Burns (from "Lady Bouvier's Lover", which resulted in rejection on all sides). Finally, Homer reminds Marge of how they overcame their initial adversity back in high school and became a pair of green young lovers (from "The Way We Was"), reigniting their romantic spark in the present and demonstrating the point that Marge had been itching to make all along (although by this stage the kids have already scarpered back to their Itchy & Scratchy re-runs).

Despite being such an ardent "Another Simpsons Clip Show" apologist, I'll say upfront that I do have one serious quibble with this episode, which I already cited in my fawning love letter to "Life on The Fast Lane" - when Homer hears the story of Marge's relationship with Jacques, he's apparently flabbergasted to learn about this previously unknown chapter of Marge's life and has this response: "Marge, I want you to stop seeing this Jacques. You can let him down gently, but over the next couple of months I want you to break it off." Strangely enough, a lot of people cite this particular Homerism as one of the genuine high points of an otherwise lacklustre clip show, but being one who holds "Life on The Fast Lane" to such high esteem, I cannot overlook how it contradicts the implications of that episode, which is that Homer understood all along that Marge was on the brink of leaving him for another man, but never found the words to vocalise it. Marge even reminded him of this historic threat to their relationship (albeit not entirely pertinently) in "So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show". So for Homer to act as if this is all news to him and come out with such an idiotic response simply rubs me the wrong way. Then again, we were told at the end of the aforementioned clip show that Homer lost 5% of his brain during his seven-week coma, so perhaps I should presume that his memories of the events in "Life on The Fast Lane" were stored within that 5%?

What makes "Another Simpsons Clip Show" a far stronger entry, in my view, than "So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show", is that it takes a more critical perspective on past material than its predecessor. Whereas "So It's Come To This", was very straightforward in its incorporation of older clips, with characters reminiscing largely for the sake of it and making the occasional fourth wall-tapping reference to the tackiness of it all, "Another Simpsons Clip Show" has a greater interest in scouring the family's history of emotional traumas in order to, as Bart puts it, open up old wounds and examine the uncomfortable loose ends left dangling at the end of those episodes. It takes a glaring look at some of the longer-term consequences which the episodes in question, in their need to wrap up everything tidily in less than twenty-two minutes, inevitably glossed over. There are lots of wry observations within the characters' present-day narration, which range from mockery of the strange contrivances that enabled their previous adventures to conclude as they did (muses Marge upon her fateful drive in the direction of the Fiesta Terrace, along which there were married couples flaunting their commitment left and right, "Thank goodness I drove down that ironic street!") to bizarre, arbitrary detail (Lisa noting that, "It was an unusually warm February 14th, so the children walked home without jackets"). The most biting deconstruction of all, though, comes from Lisa's sad reflection that the family's individual stories are all "tragic and filled with hurt feelings and scars that will never heal." Lisa is right-on. This is a self-aware attack on the glibness with which these episodes were supposedly resolved, and the apparent ease with which the characters assume that they were able to put these soul-shattering incidents behind them and move on. This much is evident in Marge's suspiciously incongruous intentions in citing her time with Jacques as her go-to example of a romantic encounter, insisting that her story represents a closed chapter of her life and that, "I made the right decision to stay with my Homie, and there was no harm done," while wistfully replaying the details to a degree that suggests that she is still half-living in them. It's hilarious, because the first time we see "Another Simpsons Clip Show", we would likely assume that the whole point of Marge bringing up the events of "Life on The Fast Lane" is to get to the end of the episode, in which she reunites with Homer and their married bond is triumphantly reaffirmed, as her example. But no. She stops before she even reaches that point, hurriedly concludes her story, and summarises, "if you mentally snip out the fact that I already had a husband, that's my idea of romance." So it was Jacques to whom she'd been referring all along. It's as clear as day that Marge is still enamoured with Jacques (ha! I knew it!).

There's nothing, meanwhile, to suggest that Homer still harbours feelings for Mindy, but he has a disturbing new epilogue to add to his story, when Bart asks what became of his Michelle Pfeiffer-voiced co-worker. "She hit the bottle hard and lost her job." Whoa, seriously? That's actually horrible.* While there is something undeniably mean-spirited about the inclusion of that line, the sheer casualness with which Homer spits it out and Marge's vindictive response of "Good", it nevertheless serves an important function in calling attention to the plot points that are left unresolved and flat-out ignored at the conclusions to both "The Last Temptation of Homer" and "Life on The Fast Lane". While it's nice that Homer and Marge were able to reaffirm their marital bond on both occasions, we would do well to remember that each episode also ends with the third party having to deal with the bitter sting of rejection. It's one of the reasons why, although it will forever be one of my all-time favourites, the ending to "Life on The Fast Lane" does strike me as a tad disingenuous - in part because I'm not convinced that Marge makes the decision she actually wants so much as caves into what's conventionally expected of her (and after seeing "Another Simpsons Clip Show" I'm even less convinced), but also because of the ending's rather callous disregard for Jacques. It gets around the problem that he ends up alone by avoiding the issue altogether; Jacques does not reappear following his bathroom mirror sequence, and his relationship with Marge receives no closure. If you consider the story from his perspective, it must have been a terribly crushing blow to him when Marge failed to show up to the Fiesta Terrace and no longer wanted to continue with their bowling lessons/brunch liaisons. On top of which, it seems doubtful that Homer and Marge themselves would just be able to pick up and carry on as normal after what they had each been through. Knowing that you came this close to betraying your significant other is the kind of emotionally-devastating experience that has the potential to really mangle your relationship and your self-perception going forward. I find it hard to believe that Homer and Marge wouldn't be intermittently torn up inside by it all; the guilt over the irrecoverable damage they nearly did to their marriage, guilt over the hurt they most certainly caused Jacques and Mindy (and Lurleen, although her particular woeful tale isn't brought up here), and the occasional regret in contemplating the road not taken. These are hardly the kinds of anecdotes you'd want to dig up and casually trot around whenever you've a nostalgic itch to be scratched. But that's what makes "Another Simpsons Clip Show" such an ingenious episode. Whereas "So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show" was about the sweetness of nostalgia, of retreating into one's personal history and going in search of long-lost summers (albeit juxtaposed with the disturbing sight of one of the family in a coma), "Another Simpsons Clip Show" trades in looking to yesteryear to find only the pain and contusions of one's poor decisions and moments of weakness staring back at one. The characters are suddenly confronted with the consequences of past interludes which both they and the viewer had presumed were long buried.

Ironically, I think it's actually Lisa's story that, of the lot, ended the most clemently in its original form. "Another Simpsons Clip Show" stops Lisa's account at Ralph's televised humiliation and does not show anything from the third act, in which Ralph and Lisa manage to make amends and accept one another as friends. Of all the jilted romantics to feature in these tales, none were rejected half as publicly as Ralph, however, so it doesn't surprise me that there'd be lingering remorse on Lisa's part. As for Bart's story, "New Kid on The Block" has a superficially upbeat ending in which Laura gives Bart a much-welcome self-esteem boost, although one does have to feel aggrieved on behalf of Jimbo, who gets rejected because he cried and begged for his life when a knife-wielding sociopath (hey there Moe) burst through the door and threatened to violently butcher him (toxic masculinity much?). The irony there is that Bart had a much more bitter tale of unrequited puppy love right around the corner, in which he fell head over heels for an emotional abuser (voiced by the actress who played the corn-fed heroine in the aforementioned The Bridges of Madison County, oddly enough).

By the time we get to the events of "Lady Bouvier's Lover", Marge is clearly scraping the barrel for an example of a positive romance story, for you would have been hard-pressed to find a more comprehensively sour entry into the Simpsons canon at this stage in the series' run (in context, it was lightened somewhat by a B-story in which Bart blows a wad of Homer's cash on an unimpressive-looking animation cel). It ends with Abe crashing Burns and Jackie's wedding and making a last ditch effort to win Jackie back into his arms. This fails, but Jackie also decides that she doesn't want to marry Burns either, which Abe triumphantly declares is good enough for him. Make no mistake, Abe isn't taking commiseration from the fact that his rivalry with Burns resulted in a draw (Burns still has his wealth and power to go and cry on, after all), but that Jackie, having crushed his hopes and aspirations for a renewed purpose in life, willfully surrenders her own along with it. The two characters end up wedded in their mutual resignation to the exact same fate of watching Matlock re-runs in a derelict retirement home while awaiting the inevitable. This is underscored in the episode's surprisingly chilling closing sequence, which mirrors that of Mike Nichols' 1967 film The Graduate (perhaps the most brilliant detached tale of modern alienation of them all), as Abe and Jackie flee the aborted wedding and board a senior transportation bus - unlike Ben and Elaine, whose elated laughter fades to silence as they contemplate the uncertain road ahead of them, Abe and Jackie find themselves headed right back to the gloomy future of oppressive certainty from which they had yearned to escape, while a Paul Simon soundlike taunts them with reminders of their isolation and impending mortality ("Hello Grandpa, my old friend. Your busy day is at an end..."). I get goose pimples every time I see it.

Ultimately, I think that what most contributes to the rather musty reputation of "Another Simpsons Clip Show" has less to do with it being a clip show than it being a purposely feel-bad clip show, in which past narratives are deliberately reevaluated in order to eliminate all sense of redemption (assuming there was a sense of redemption in the first place, which is not the case for "Lady Bouvier's Lover"). It's a clever episode, but by design not an especially fun one. Even the superficially uplifting ending, in which Homer looks back to the beginnings of his relationship with Marge and concludes that not all romances are destined to end in heartbreak, does little to take the sting off. The moment from "The Way We Was" in which a teenage Homer tells Marge that he'll never let her go is undeniably sweet, but lacks substantive catharsis when you haven't seen the full story leading up to it. It's also somewhat negated by the fact that we've just heard both parties brazenly swap stories about the times in between when they seriously contemplated an extramarital relationship. I'm not convinced that their marriage did have such a happy ending. The fact that Homer and Marge are still together after all this time is not, in itself, proof that their relationship is a healthy one. Erik Adams, in his aforementioned AV Club review, criticises the episode for taking as long as it does to arrive at the obvious, asserting that, "Perhaps it’s because so much of the conversation around the dinner table is centered on fantasy versions of love and romance, but the Simpson kids needn’t dig for so long to find the ideal of a committed, loving relationship." But then I'd say that's rather the point. The episode opens with Marge questioning if the romance in their relationship is long dead, and throughout it's pretty much treated as a given that their days of passionate doting are behind them. Marge's breakfast table discussion has less to do with instilling values in her children, we suspect, than her need to seek validation from external sources, given the uninspiring state of her own love life. Yet all it takes is a meager flashback to the time when their relationship was young, fresh and hopeful to convince her that there's life in their unity yet. The ultimate challenge of  "Another Simpsons Clip Show", then, is in deciding whether or not, after twenty-odd minutes of mercilessly pummeling the facileness of conclusions past, it too succumbs to the sin of the glib resolution, or if it somehow earns its happy ending after wading extensively through past traumas in order to discover that the validation Marge sought was right there inside all along; that she and Homer are a bedrock of stability in a cruel and chaotic universe. I suppose it comes down to the age-old question the series continually keeps on posing as to whether Homer and Marge actually a good couple. My brain, heart, eyes, ears, gut and stomach all tell me very definitively that no, they are not, and yet there is arguably a certain laudability in how their relationship abides and endures, regardless of whether or not you think it makes sense. So wrong it's right? Perhaps it's best off being left as one of life's eternal mysteries - episodes that attempt to get to the bottom of what makes their relationship functional (such as the Season 5 finale, "Secrets of A Successful Marriage") usually fail to come up with a satisfying answer. We just know that love always ends in tragedy, except for Marge and Homer, apparently. But then they do have the status quo on their side.

* Having said that, this is at odds with the fact that we do occasionally see Mindy as a background character at the power plant (eg: she was seen lining up for a Fleet-A-Pita in "The Twisted World of Marge Simpson"), so we probably should take Homer's statement with a pinch of salt.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show (aka It Was An Amusing Episode...Of Our Lives)

Here's a riddle for you all - why is watching a clip show akin to eating a Big Mac? If your answer was that both are end-products of blending a lot of random, ground-up crap and squashing them together into something resembling a barely digestible were only half-right. The answer I had in mind was that clip shows are another textbook example of what George Ritzer would certainly view as symptomatic of our slide ever deeper into what he calls "McDonaldization", a concept outlined in one of my all-time favourite books, The McDonaldization of Society (first published in 1993, although for the purposes of this discussion I refer to the fifth edition from 2008). There, Ritzer argues that the world we're now living in has come to resemble a great fast food restaurant (great meaning large or immense, I used it in the pejorative sense), as more and more outlets and institutions seek to emulate the model which enabled McDonalds to achieve global conquest. Ritzer identifies four key dimensions fundamental to the process of McDonaldization: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. The first two dimensions go some way in accounting for why, historically, clip shows have proven an immensely popular staple among television networks. They're cheaper and easier to produce than a regular episode, meaning that you can produce more episodes, and faster. Writes Ritzer, once McDonaldization gets underway, "Quantity tends to become a surrogate for quality." (p.79)  More episodes means that a show can dominate the airwaves for longer, and hopefully prompt the viewer to keep habitually tuning in at the allotted time, which is where the dimension of control enters in. Predictability, meanwhile, is the major factor in accounting for why viewers would choose to go along with such a cynical and perfunctory ploy, at least in theory. What it comes down to is that human beings are creatures of habit and we prefer to seek reassurance in what's safe and familiar than venture out into the dark unknown. Ritzer attributes a great part of McDonalds' success to the fact that "Customers take great comfort in knowing that McDonalds offers no surprises. People know that the next Egg McMuffin they eat will not be awful, although it will not be exceptionally delicious, either." (p.14) In short, we like to know what we're getting, and a clip show offers that in spades. To an extent, almost all episodic television operates according to a basic level of predictability, in that there's usually a status quo to be observed (The Simpsons is certainly no exception to this) and there's only only so far we expect our favourite shows to go in pushing their own boundaries. The clip show takes this to an extreme, in that seeks to eliminate the unknown aspect of the new episode altogether, in offering nothing new. We know what we're getting because we've seen it all before and, rather than feeling bored or frustrated with the lack of new material, the expectation is that we'll delight at the opportunity to relive our favourite moments once again, safe and secure in knowing precisely how each individual gag will play out. Clip shows are not traditionally thought of as challenging viewing, and as such should be considered anathema to any series that wishes to maintain the appearance of respecting its audience.

Still, even a series as fresh, innovative and proudly irreverent as The Simpsons could only stave off the temptations of the clip show for so long. On April 1st 1993, "So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show" (9F17) first aired, and proved a fairly deceptive episode, not least because the actual clip show aspect doesn't kick off until the second act. True, the title is certainly a huge giveaway, but if you happened to catch this episode without knowing any of the finer details, you might feel a tad caught off guard when the total recall gets underway. The framing narrative, which has just enough juice in it to sustain the first several minutes of the episode by itself, sees Homer suffering dire injuries when an April Fools prank concocted by Bart goes awry. As he lies upon a hospital gurney, drifting through varying states of consciousness, an assortment of characters gather around him to reminisce about their past interactions and how Homer has impacted them all individually. The nature of the story narrows down the list of usable clips considerably, in demanding that they mainly be about Homer and his relationships with his family and other Springfieldians. It also proves a good excuse to compile a bunch of clips showcasing the eye-popping amount of physical abuse that Homer had already endured within the first four years of the series alone (let's see, he took a tumble down a gorge - twice - was zapped repeatedly in family therapy and was violently bludgeoned by his infant daughter). Poor guy was always destined to end up in a coma sooner or later.

"So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show" came about because the series staff were struggling to meet their episode quota for the fourth season, and the clip show route was accepted as a last ditch solution. As per the episode's DVD commentary, the Fox network was very keen on the idea of making such clip shows a regular Simpsons tradition and having no less than four per season, thinking eagerly of all the money that could be saved in production costs (although they could still sell the syndication rights at full price). That's McDonaldization I for you. The production staff thought better of the proposal, knowing that feeding their viewership the same footage they'd already seen over and over on a quadannual basis would be a surefire way to kill off goodwill. Despite the production crew opting to hold their hands up on this occasion and openly telegraph their embarrassment in the episode's title, they were not above pulling the same stunt whenever their writing staff needed another reprieve later on down the line. "So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show" wound up being the first in a string of five different clip shows to be eked out during the series' run, its successors being "Another Simpsons Clip Show" of Season 6, "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular" of Season 7, "All Singing, All Dancing" of Season 9 and "Gump Roast" of Season 13 (in addition,"Springfield's Most Wanted", a promotional special that aired on Fox amid the "Who Shot Mr Burns?" hype of 95, might be viewed as a clip show, albeit a non-canonical one). If we take "138th Episode Spectacular", which is actually quite a popular entry, out of the equation (I do think it's a mite unfair to compare the pure greatest hits fests with an episode pooling much of its footage from deleted outtakes and other obscure goodies that would have been near-impossible to find in the pre-DVD age), then fans would generally agree that "So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show", while not up to snuff with the best of Season 4, is by and far the best of the bunch. I'll specify upfront that this is not my opinion. It'll be a cold, cold day in Hell that you'll catch me defending the likes of "All Singing" or "Gump Roast", but you can count me in with those weird, sick and supremely rare deviants who think that "Another Simpsons Clip Show" is a much cleverer and better-constructed episode than it's ordinarily given credit for. For what it's worth, I think that its predecessor is a perfectly enjoyable episode, and a respectable stab at what is, when all is said and done, an inherently dubious undertaking. The selection of clips is generally stellar and there are some great character moments (including a genuinely touching one, when Lisa plays her saxophone to an unresponsive Homer). It is, however, an uneven and frankly baffling experience, and I've long struggled to put my finger on what, precisely, I find so off about it. It's a strange, insincere episode, and it ends with quite a nasty surprise for Homer and the viewer.

Some viewers argue that "Clip Show" succeeds as an episode precisely because of its glaring artifice, which they interpret as being entirely calculated. Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood of I Can't Believe It's An Unofficial Simpsons Guide give the episode their approval, lauding it as, "About as good as a clip show ever gets and, as the title suggests, refreshingly upfront about itself." Certainly, there are a couple of points where the episode gets particularly self-referential about the blatant crumminess of the venture. In one instance, Bart refers to an old Itchy & Scratchy skit, apropos of nothing, and when Marge questions the pertinence of his contribution, Bart responds, "It was an amusing episode...of our lives," stopping only a hair's breadth short of winking at the camera. Later, Abe assures Lisa that Homer is not suffering through his coma, and that the experience is actually a wonderful opportunity to scratch one's nostalgic itches: "You relive long lost summers, kiss girls from high's like one of those TV shows where they show a bunch of clips from old episodes." This time it's Bart's turn to be stumped by the fourth wall chipping, as he budges the discussion back into regular proceedings with a pointedly awkward "Well, anyway..." For much of the time, though, the segues into recollection are played more-or-less straight, and the characters veer into them on an uncanny kind of autopilot, almost as if they are being willed by a force beyond their own control. For example, when Homer confides to Marge his fear of ending up as "some vegetable watching TV on the couch," Marge produces the back-handed reassurance, "Society's loss, I suppose," and then adds, "But our marriage has been through hard times and we always pull through." Cue the grand finale of "Life on The Fast Lane", where Marge wanders through the power plant to the theme from An Officer and A Gentleman and reunites with Homer before a whooping crowd of nuclear technicians. It's a great sequence (I have my reservations as to how well it works as a resolution to the episode in question, but I cannot deny just how singularly lovely it is), and very worthy of its place within a run-down of past highlights. It isn't exactly relevant to this particular scenario, however, or to the specific fear that Homer just articulated.

One unique opportunity that a clip show does offer is the chance to reexamine old material by removing it from its original context and synthesising it into brand new sequences in order to generate fresh meaning. I'd say that "Clip Show" is less successful at this than the much-maligned "Another Simpsons Clip Show", which gets greater mileage out of highlighting the contrivances and improbabilities of past adventures, and the overall glibness with which all of these scenarios were eventually resolved (one of the most insightful moments of that episode is when Lisa, right before recounting the events of Season 4's "I Love Lisa", remarks that the family's individual tales of failed romances are "tragic and filled with hurt feelings and scars that will never heal", belying Marge and Homer's naive insistence that they were able to just pick up and carry on with their lives after the respective events of "Life on The Fast Lane" and "The Last Temptation of Homer" - and one of Homer's lines implies that Mindy tragically didn't). For the most part, "Clip Show" seems content to go the "Remember when this happened? And also this?" route, and the results are by turns fascinating and infuriating. Fascinating because The Simpsons had already accumulated so many wonderfully inspired moments by this point (in addition to the Officer and A Gentleman parody, other high points on offer include Homer's ill-fated gorge jump and his "Land of Chocolate" fantasy sequence), and it is genuinely interesting to see the series look back at its own rich history and pick out some of the key moments that had led it to where it presently stood. Infuriating because there are multiple points when I honestly struggle to discern if the ramshackle, artificial nature of the episode was purposely designed to befuddle fans, or if really was that shoddily-constructed. There is at least one clip in the line-up which any Simpsons fan worth their salt could immediately identity as having no logical business being there - namely, a sequence from the Season 2 episode "Treehouse of Horror", in which the family are abducted by cycloptic aliens Kodos and Kang. First rule of Simpsons Club is that whatever you see in a Halloween episode stays in a Halloween episode. The stories are non-canonical, which permits them get a little wilder and more fantastical than usual, and while the first "Treehouse of Horror" has a framing story that I could at least accept as canon, it doesn't involve Marge and there's no rational means by which she could possibly dredge up this moment from personal memory as an example of Homer's ability to remain calm when confronted with the unexpected. Did the production crew simply overlook this while pooling the clips they wanted to use, or did they purposely throw it in, possibly to annoy ardent fans and confuse newbies who weren't familiar with the series' Halloween traditions (imagine seeing this clip without having seen "Treehouse of Horror" and having no idea of its original context)?

Amid the non-step reminiscing, we get the occasional sequence that, rather than provide set-up for another shoehorned-in flashback, leads into an entirely legitimate gag that would not have felt out of place in a regular episode - notably, a scene with Moe and Barney that turns into a somewhat twisted parody of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, in which Barney, unable to bear the sight of a beer-averse Homer, attempts to smother him with a pillow and then "escapes" the hospital by hurling a water cooler through the window. Professor Frink also puts in a likeably left-field cameo, in which he proposes a radical Fantastic Voyage-esque cure for Homer's ailment which would unfortunately require participants to enter the body through Homer's rectum ("We have had a little trouble finding volunteers...") Other sequences feel jarring even by this episode's piecemeal standards. Most arbitrary of all is an interjection from Mr Burns, who shows up very suddenly in an attempt to have Homer removed from life support, asserting that Homer has always been a burden to him and pointing to an incident from Season 3's "Dog of Death" to prove it. Not only does the conflict go nowhere beyond this brief flashback (when we return to the present action, we see that Burns has vacated the episode as abruptly as he stormed in), but it's another moment that seems almost custom-designed to test the patience of long-term viewers, given that it flies in the face of one of the series' longest-running gags, whereby Burns always has his memory conveniently wiped in between episodes and can never recall who Homer is. The very notion of Burns being able to contribute to an episode based around Springfield's personal memories with Homer is frankly as ludicrous and off-kilter as that aforementioned Rigellian abduction.

All in all I think it's Abe's remarks, and not Bart's, that best encapsulates the episode's agenda. It is not, as Bart suggests, an excuse to throw together an assortment of random clips without rhyme or reason; rather, Abe's words about reliving long lost summers put the entire ethos of the clip show into the framework of a nostalgic quest, the reminiscing less concerned with looking to the past for reassurance in weathering the present than with flat-out retreating into the past in order to avoid some unpalatable component of the present altogether. If the segues into each individual flashback ring entirely hollow, it's because the characters aren't practicing this escapism for their own benefit, but for that of the viewer. "Clip Show" invites us to seek refuge in the show's numerous past glories, taking comfort in our familiarity with the material and in the fact that we already know how these scenarios will work out. And yet "Clip Show" is not exactly a comforting watch. Abe tells us that the reminiscing process should be an entirely sweet affair, and yet in juxtaposing this with his description of a coma, creates a disturbance which calls attention to the disingenuousness of the set-up. All of this shameless and upfront emphasis on the days that are past suggests, troublingly, that there's something amiss within the current state of affairs, which our attentions are being diverted from. What, precisely, was The Simpsons so anxious about in the present?

When I think about it, "Clip Show" may actually have been the first Simpsons episode to openly advertise the show's anxieties regarding its own longevity, which had already far exceeded expectations at just seventy-seven episodes. That obviously seems ludicrous now, with The Simpsons still going strong after nearly thirty years and with more than 650 episodes under its belt, but back in 1993 that would have seemed unimaginable, and "Clip Show" served as the series' means of acknowledging how far it had come while admitting to just a smidgen of uncertainty as to where it could possibly be headed from here. Season 4, with its increasing emphasis on absurd scenarios and wackier, rapid-fire humour, already seemed worlds removed from the more grounded, character-driven dramas of Season 1. The very title of the episode conveys a mixture of resignation, bewilderment and apprehension, as if the show's staff, while superficially attempting to laugh off this resort to such a hoary sitcom standby as a minor blip in the road, genuinely feared that their act of desperation constituted the beginning of the end. The series would, of course, get far more openly self-referential and acerbic in contemplating its own prospective demise four more years down the line, and with hindsight "Clip Show" seems like a very mild and not-so-justified manifestation of the show's self-doubt, but it is nevertheless an early, disconcerting hint of the end times that did not come. The Simpsons, still somewhat overwhelmed by the extent of its own success, was waking up to its own mortality and wondering how much longer it could reasonably hope to keep this up.

As usual, there is a characteristically Simpsons twist to the proceedings. What makes "Clip Show" a profoundly unsettling experience, despite its emphasis on the warm security of yesteryear, is the fact that all of this fond reminiscing takes place against the backdrop of what is a truly appalling situation. The continued invitation to the viewer to slip back into the comforts of nostalgia is repeatedly disturbed by sharp reminders of Homer's own uncertain future. On the episode's DVD commentary, the production crew joke that the scenario was inspired by an episode of Happy Days in which the Fonz is badly injured, sparking a similar form of reminiscing among his friends, and how they as viewers struggled to get invested in Fonz's plight due to the whole thing being a very blatant set-up simply to compile a wad of clips. Likewise, I don't think that many viewers, at any point, were seriously worried for Homer's fate while watching this episode. Nevertheless, Homer does suffer terribly throughout, and his suffering is as sadly pathetic as it is grotesque. A candy machine falls on him and Homer, unable to defend himself, is almost suffocated by the succession of candy bars that drop into his mouth. There's one moment in which an unconscious Homer starts foaming at the mouth, confronting us with the grim, ugly realities of his condition, which seem almost incompatible with Abe's soothing description of what it's like to be in a coma. But that's all just peanuts compared to how the adventure ends.

On reflection, I realise that this is yet another episode that I sold short by not including in my round-up of strange and unsettling Simpsons endings. Because the final sequence here really is the stuff that horrors are made of (never mind Jason Voorhees). Homer, having finally pulled out of his coma, is discharged from intensive care and reunites with his family in the waiting room. He promises to celebrate his recovery by taking the family on vacation to Hawaii, then triumphantly declares April Fools, pointing out that, as per the clock on the waiting room wall, there are still two more minutes of April 1st left to go. On a more straightforward sitcom, this might have seemed like a fitting enough closing gag to an episode that uses April Fools Day to set events into motion. Except Bart and Lisa inform him that it's May 16th and that he was in that coma for seven weeks. Homer looks, nonplussed, to Marge, who nods, and then the family all burst out laughing in unison. This is an ending that confused the hell out of me as a child because I wasn't certain if Bart and Lisa were being serious or if this was their retaliatory attempt at a last-minute April Fools prank. As an adult, though, I'm pretty sure that's not the case. The final revelation is disturbing because it implies that the situation was actually far, far more dire than we'd ever imagined. What's more, there were some nasty long-term consequences, as it seems that Homer suffered permanent brain damage during his coma; Marge giggles that he lost 5% of his brain. The safety net of sweet nostalgia in which we've been encouraged to indulge for the past fifteen minutes is completely shattered. The episode closes with Homer asking why he's laughing, which registers less as a symptom of his faulty brain kicking into gear and screwing with his memory than a desperate howl of anguish at the horror of what he's being made to process. Endings in which the family all laugh at once were becoming reasonably common at this point (see also "Black Widower" and "Last Exit To Springfield"); ostensibly it's a glib means of ending on a note of happy unity, although there is usually a darker undercurrent and "Clip Show" may have the darkest of them all. The family laugh not because there's anything funny about their closing situation, but because their emotions have reached breaking point and are spiraling out of control in a dreadful, hysterical whirl. This is the laughter of the damned, or at the very least the damned inconvenienced.

"Clip Show" has its merits, then. But I think what ultimately mars my enjoyment of the episode - and I doubt that this much was intentional - is the heavy sense of déjà vu throughout, by which I refer not to the episode's insistence on retreading the series' history, but to the resemblance the wraparound plot bears to a full-blooded plot used earlier within the very same season, "Homer's Triple Bypass". There, Homer is similarly hospitalised and we get a number of scenes in which the family have to deal with the frightening possibility that he might not pull through, and in which various supporting characters gather at the ward to give Homer their well wishes. The two scenarios are so similar and hit so many near-identical beats that I frequently have to remind myself which of them has the Cuckoo's Nest parody, which has the appearance from Frink and which has Abe musing upon the potential upside to one of life's supposed tragedies. It's also not as if "Triple Bypass" aired well ahead of "Clip Show"; there was a mere seven episode gap between the two. To compare the two episodes is probably highly unfair, for whereas "Bypass" has a genuine interest in the whole set-up of Homer and those close to him having to grapple with life-or-death uncertainty, in "Clip Show" it's all undisguisedly a means to an end, an excuse to get a bunch of characters together and jetting off on a trip down memory lane. Nevertheless, I wonder how it must have looked, at the time, for the series to be repeating itself almost instantly. Again, it seems ludicrous to propose that The Simpsons was on the verge of running out of ideas in 1993, but there is a malaise about this episode that cuts slightly deeper than the mere embarrassment of having to offer its viewers a clip show. In some respects, "Clip Show" did mark the beginning of the end - the end of the series' tenure as a young and radical cartoon and and the beginning of its time as a cultural mainstay, a development which, as the series would continually have to confront, can be a curse as much as a blessing.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Hang In There Baby (How A Dead Cat Explains Futility)

One of the most inspired examples of a character confronting a haunted image in The Simpsons occurs in the Season 8 episode, "The Twisted World of Marge Simpson" (original air date January 19th 1997), in which Marge attempts to set up her own pretzel business and encounters setback after setback. At one point, when her spirits are feeling particularly dampened, she looks to a motivational poster affixed to the wall of her makeshift office. This features a cat hanging from a washing line, with the slogan, "Hang In There, Baby!" Marge takes momentary comfort in this kitschy image, only for her bolstered spirits to be immediately ruptured when her eyes wander down to the smaller print: "Copyright 1968...determined or not, that cat must be long dead. That's kind of a downer..." Indeed. A fundamental component of hauntology is the notion that the future we once anticipated has failed us and that we are left with a shattered timeline, compelled to look ever backwards to the past for solace as all of our unresolved anxieties continue to stare us in the face, the past, the present and the cancelled future converging in a chaotic mishmash of omnipresent disturbance. And what could be more disturbing than a dead cat peeking at us from beyond the grave, reminding us of that all is lost? And you thought Pet Sematary was a bit unsettling.

Marge's poster has a real-life counterpart - throughout the 1970s, images of cats clinging on for dear life were plastered all over homes and offices with the intention of spurring humans on through their day-to-day troubles, although the earliest specimen dates back to 1971, not 1968. The original "Hang In There, Baby" poster was the creation of Los Angeles-based photographer Victor Baldwin, and was originally featured as an illustration in a children's book, The Outcast Kitten, which was written by Baldwin and his then-wife Jeanne and published in 1970. (Incidentally, if you're thinking of scurrying over to Abebooks and bagging a of luck, baby. I took a gander and the cheapest one was listed for over £750 - about $980). The black and white image showed Siamese kitten Sassy (given the name Wiki in the book) hanging onto a bamboo branch with her forepaws, with the caption "Chin up". The image struck a chord with the public, and attracted such an enthusiastic reaction that Baldwin decided to market it as a poster with the revised caption, "Hang in there, baby!" It proved such a hot seller that for a time Baldwin was able to put his photography career on hiatus and live solely off the profits generated by Sassy's likeness. Naturally, a slew of rip-offs featuring cats in similar poses, and with the same tagline, were rapidly ushered into being, although Baldwin was extremely vigilant against unauthorised use of the original Sassy image and brought successful copyright infringement cases against any and all bootleggers he happened across. The world took Sassy's battle with that infernal branch to their hearts, and the image of the suspended cat became one of the ultimate cliches of motivational paraphernalia, a classic artifact of 1970s kitsch. As such, it was always inevitable that The Simpsons would have their say on it eventually.

Marge's observation is brilliantly astute, but also disturbing, in that she seems to be mourning for more than Sassy's long-deceased Simpsons counterpart. Within that twenty-nine year gap, the cat has acquired new significance as an emblem of the faded hopes and dreams of an entire generation. Countless people projected their individual plights onto this memorable image of a frankly very uncomfortable-looking feline, and Marge's despairing remarks imply that the struggle was all for nought, prompted by her sudden realisation that the cat, once hailed as the embodiment of determination, isn't there any more. All we are left with is a static, two-dimensional image that has slowly decayed, in the words of popular website Know Your Meme, into "a symbol of corporate coldness," symptomatic of everything glib, impersonal and odious about the dubious cult of the motivational poster. The poster becomes a classic example of a haunted image - Marge looks to the cat and sees not inspiration for enduring the present but the ghost of a dead and defeated past warning her of the sheer futility of her endeavors. In this light, the tagline becomes more of a sardonic taunt, a reminder that, just as the cat remains permanently frozen in its position, a static entity doomed to dangle forever from its fragile lifeline, so too Marge may have little choice but to hang in there for all eternity, waiting for a victory that will not be coming. It is a witty deconstruction as it utterly inverts the entire purpose of the poster, a characteristically Simpsons assertion that those who put their trust in corporate images and mass-marketed philosophies are setting themselves up for disappointment.

What makes the Sassy poster troubling, particularly when viewed with Marge's observations in mind, is that, stripped of all context and chintzy taglines, it's actually a terribly unsettling image. Baldwin, who had previously worked as a humane officer and was a great cat lover, assured anyone who raised questions about the welfare of his subject that he had not forced Sassy into the pose in question but had instead taken numerous shots of the kitten playing naturally and that she had yielded the goods by herself. Nevertheless, I don't think there's any skirting around the fact that Sassy blatantly does not look happy in the above image - on closer inspection, her facial expression is one of wide-eyed anguish, the branch pressed up tightly against her chin as gravity takes a hold of her body and threatens to pull her down to a drop of god knows how deep, and her extended claws struggle feebly to keep her atop her flimsy platform. It's the snapshot of a cat who has been caught off guard and completely lost control of her situation. The black and white aesthetic only makes the plight of the cat seem starker (and all the more ghostly). Indeed, it seems a downright morbid moment to keep a cat frozen and suspended in for all eternity, which is precisely what Baldwin succeeded in doing when he captured the image and transformed it into a lucrative cultural icon. Perhaps Sassy's tortured expression was crying out our inevitable doom all along and we were too entranced by what we'd convinced ourselves was an adorable image to see it? Perhaps the below image, another witty parody of the "Hang In There, Baby" mantra, is a far more accurate reflection of really goes on inside the head of a cat, and those of their human counterparts, as they find themselves dangling powerlessly from their literal and figurative branches?