Let's talk about a Simpsons sight gag that I believe merits more appreciation. In Season 6's "Fear of Flying" (2F08), Homer and Marge visit the VHS Village, a video rental store, which advertises itself in its signage as "formerly the Beta Barn". It's a small moment, but one that the format nerd in me absolutely revels in. Oh yes, trust me, this is a far greater deal than Guy Incognito. On the surface, it might register as nothing more than a fleeting reference to the videotape format war that waged across the late 1970s/early-to-mid 1980s, with Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS each competing to determine the future of home media consumption. Springfield's local video library, it seems, backed the losing pony and were forced to concede come the back-end of the 80s, when VHS emerged as the clear victor and most Betamax tapes were earmarked for landfill. Change happened. Yet that vanquished identity represents more than just a basic nod to a cultural curiosity that was fast fading into memory. It signifies as what could have been as much as what was - a cancelled timeline and a possible future that never materialised. By the time "Fear of Flying" debuted, on December 18th 1994, the succeeding decade was almost half-over and enough distance had been created between Betamax's point of relevance and the present day that the VHS Village really should be able to stand on its own. Surely nobody would be asking for the Beta Barn at the dawn of '95? Instead, acknowledgement of the store's former identity continues to linger, an unassuming ode to every potentially revolutionary idea or development that got lost and discarded in the merciless march of time. (Adding to the poignancy, from a modern-day perspective, is the knowledge that the VHS Village would now be defunct in any format.)
For as much as I'm inclined to read into this gag, its presence here may be down to good old-fashioned labor-saving more than anything else. Technically, the first time we encountered it was in Season 3's "Saturdays of Thunder" (which aired three years prior, in November 1991), when Homer and Lisa go to the VHS Village to rent a Happy Little Elves tape (another nod to a cultural phenomenon that was then becoming obsolete). Yet for some reason the exact same gag doesn't resonate even half as hard with me in that episode. It seems starker in 1994, when the Betamax's try at longevity was more of a faded memory. Studying the store exterior as it appears in "Saturdays of Thunder", I wonder if the Betamax reference in "Fear of Flying" was something of a leftover detail as opposed to a calculated choice. Compare the two and you'll note that while they didn't go so far as to reuse the same animation cels from "Saturdays of Thunder", they have basically recycled the exact same mise-en-scene, only with a new lick of paint slapped on everything. In "Saturdays of Thunder", the blue and yellow colour scheme was clearly intended to evoke that of Blockbuster Video, only here the VHS Village has swapped that out for a slightly less shameless mixture of red and beige. The posters on the store window are the same but are obscured so that we can no longer see the titles. The Simpsons' car has been removed, but the two nondescript vehicles are identical, just with different paint jobs. And here's a particularly disturbing detail - the fire hydrant outside the store is yellow! Have Homer and Marge gone to the VHS Village in Shelbyville, per chance?
Still, not only did they retain the Beta Barn sub heading, in revamping the scene they the lettering bigger, bolder and more prominent, as if they really wanted you to notice it this time around. Perhaps this gag is more at home in "Fear of Flying", an episode where the central theme deals with uncomfortable truths and barely suppressed memories that continue to reverberate in the present, no matter how seemingly far-removed by the sands of time. We saw all the way back in Season 1's "Moaning Lisa" that smiling and concealing has been Marge's long-term survival strategy, and in the same episode we also got an inkling of how well that strategy has served her. Here, Marge's lifetime of bottled-up emotion finally reaches breaking point when Homer's latest misadventure earns the family free airline tickets to any location in the contiguous United States and she's forced to confront her aerophobia. Whenever this episode is the subject of discussion, some smart aleck is bound to bring up that the family previously flew in the Season 3 episode "Mr Lisa Goes To Washington", and there we didn't hear a peep out of Marge. And true, that is one heck of a glaring continuity issue, although here it is strongly insinuated that her areophobia is really just a manifestation of a far greater problem, and the form it takes ends up feeling largely arbitrary. It has nothing to do with her father making a living as an airline steward and not a pilot, as she'd been led to believe. The revelation is just dumb, and the episode knows it's dumb, although it does give us a rare glimpse of Clancy Bouvier, a character we'd previously only encountered once. The real underlying source of Marge's problems is...well, take a wild guess. It's an episode that spends a lot of time dancing around the obvious, without getting anywhere in particular, and for that reason it sometimes has a hard time endearing itself to viewers. "Fear of Flying" is definitely one of the more undervalued episodes of Season 6; it has a sad, sour quality that doesn't consistently yield belly laughs, but it's an interesting look at just how determined the adult Simpsons are to avoid facing up to what hurts. It only scratches the surface, but even that superficial scratch proves potent enough.
When Marge's pre-take off panic attack causes the family to cancel their vacation plans, her latent anxieties continue to manifest themselves in increasingly strange and neurotic ways. Lisa urges Marge to see a therapist, but Homer is against the idea, for he has enough foresight to see where this is potentially headed. Instead, he seeks alternative outlets of support, including a hack radio psychic and agony aunt Dear Abby (Dear Abby, lest we forget, would later unwittingly respond to one of Marge's dilemmas), and gets the idea that watching films about air travel will help Marge to overcome her fears. Hence their visit to the VHS Village. Homer picks out a selection of penitent videos, based on their upbeat titles - Hero, Fearless and most alluringly of all, Alive. This, too, is one of my favourite Simpsons gags.
You can see the misguided logic in Homer's thinking. On the one hand, all of those films do have ostensibly positive-sounding titles, although the imagery on each VHS cover should have been a dead giveaway as to the content in each case. Hero (Stephen Frears, 1992), Fearless (Peter Weir, 1993) and Alive (Frank Marshall, 1993) are all real pictures, and they were all relatively recent releases back in 1994. I'm not sure how much individual resonance Hero and Fearless would have had with viewers at the time, beyond what's self-evident, as both of those films nose-dived at the box office, but Alive was rather a different story. It didn't exactly make a blockbuster-sized killing either, but such was the infamy of its subject that mere mention of the title would have struck an uneasy nerve. Not everyone has seen the film, but most everyone knows the true-life story it was based on, or at least has a vague idea of what went on atop that remote Argentinian mountain in 1972. On October 13th, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 went missing while flying over the Andes carrying 45 passengers and crew, including members of the Old Christians Club rugby team. More than 70 days later, two of the missing individuals, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, arrived in Chile, having made a daring trek across the mountains in search of aid, and on their instructions authorities were able to locate the plane wreckage and an additional fourteen survivors. The lucky sixteen later revealed that there had been a disturbing cost to their survival, for in the absence of any viable food sources, they had been forced to cannibalise the bodies of their dead friends and family. All of the passengers on board the flight were Roman Catholic, and some had rationalised the extreme measure as a form of Eucharist. Their story quickly became legendary, both as a testament to human tenacity and its ability to withstand the most adverse conditions, and as a troubling reminder of our fragility, and the harrowing decisions that might have to be made simply to sustain ourselves if the comforts of civilisation were stripped away. While Alive, based on Piers Paul Read's 1974 book Alive: The Story of The Andes Survivors, is one of the most famous media takes on the subject, it is but one artifact in a long-standing cultural fascination with the story. It had previously been dramatised as another feature film, Survive!, directed by Rene Cardona Jr in 1976. It likewise didn't take long for the world to begin plundering it for gallows humor - Ted Kotcheff's 1978 film Who Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe? contains reference to a fictitious "Andes Plane Crash Cookbook", while in 1979 BBC comedy sketch show Not The Nine O'Clock News featured a skit in which two survivors of a plane crash (played by Mel Smith and Chris Langham) are interviewed about the drastic measures they took to stay alive; we are goaded to think at first that they are alluding to cannibalism, but it is revealed that they are actually describing the experience of having to eat airline food. Then a final punchline confirms that there was cannibalism involved after all ("I mean, we'd already eaten the other passengers..."). Added to that fine tradition, we have the parody in "Fear of Flying", as Marge watched the rented video and we hear one survivor mordantly remark that, "No thanks to the plane, many of us are still...alive!", followed by the tell-tale sounds of ravenous gorging. "Pass me another hunk of co-pilot..."
As a kid, I got this gag because Alive was one of those titles that had serious playground notoriety as I was growing up. "Have you seen the movie about the rugby team who crash into the mountains and have to eat each other to stay alive?" Most of my peers actually hadn't, but I knew one particularly loud-mouthed individual who claimed to have done so, and whose professed admiration for the sixteen survivors barely concealed the strangely perverted relish with which he would talk, in eagerly lurid detail, about the sequences in which they devoured the butt cheeks of their fallen comrades (as per his account, that's where the hunk of co-pilot came from). He was so emphatic on all of this, and the parody on the Simpsons so hair-raisingly macabre, that it was something of a disappointment, many years later, when I finally got hold of Alive and discovered that, not only is it not a good film, but it's actually not as interested in the whole cannibalism dilemma as you might have imagined (given that it's the only part that anybody talks about). Make no mistake - Alive is a Hollywood production with a glossy Hollywood sheen, and it's more interest in stressing the triumph of the story than the trauma. Despite reports of the method acting the cast were supposedly put through in order to simulate starvation (I read at least one book claiming that they were not only barred from eating, but were also tasked with watching the production crew eat), I must agree with what Roger Ebert said in his review: "As subtitles tick off "Day 50" and "Day 70," the actors in the movie continue to look amazingly healthy (and well-fed)." (Gene Siskel was more positive about the film, but felt that it could have used more of that gallows humor). The obvious issue of survivor's guilt - which is the focus of Fearless - is here treated in a very pat manner. And the butt-eating? In one scene you see a character insert their finger into what looks like the vague outline of a frozen human body in the snow - the outline is so vague that it's hard to tell which part of the body he's supposed to be fiddling with, but it could well be the buttocks.
Naturally, being a true story, it merits a certain degree of reverence, and too lurid a focus on the cannibalistic element would have run the risk of being exploitative. Nevertheless, for Alive to have succeeded, it needed to be a far more visceral and physically ugly experience than it is. The tenacity of the human spirit under pressure is all well and good, but I think in a scenario such as this the basic mechanics of survival deserve consideration too - the biological drive to keep ourselves alive, and how this might compel us to do things that under ordinary circumstances we would regard as unfathomable. As remarkable as the survivors' story is, it doesn't exactly strike me as the material of life-affirming cinema. We are, after all, talking about a situation in which the majority of persons involved died, and the minority who survived only did so by eating the dead. There comes a point where the film's spirituality comes to seem less like meaningful commentary than an indulgence by which to kid ourselves that we didn't come to this picture because we were morbidly curious about the cannibalism. I think of my friend, who claimed to be greatly inspired by the courage and endurance of the Andes sixteen, but plainly just wanted to see a movie about people eating keester. It's why I appreciate the gag in "Fear of Flying" - it speaks to a world still haunted by the cultural memory of a harrowing account of death and survival, subverting efforts to repackage that memory as rousing, feel-good entertainment by peeling back the veneer and revealing the crude, unmitigated horrors at the heart of the story; horrors that captivate as much as they repel.
Avoidance of staring an undesirable truth straight in the face is one of the characteristic themes of "Fear of Flying", an episode that, in my experience, gets little in the way of appreciation, in part due to its overall desultory nature. A common grievance with the episode has to do with Homer's opening arc - to find a new watering hole after being booted out of Moe's - is abruptly forgotten and never actually resolved, so that in the end we have to rely on our trust in the end of episode reset to get us back to where we started. Erik Adams of the AV Club takes takes issue with this, noting that the episode's sudden switch in interests is "a letdown after such a crackerjack cold open—one that gave the world Guy Incognito and the always useful Chinese word for crisis and opportunity, “crisitunity.”" He also criticises the overall lack of stakes with Marge's plight, stating that, "There’s no compelling reason to get Marge back on that plane, and her reason for keeping her feet on the ground isn’t particularly compelling" (actually, I do have a number of issues with Adams' review in general). It's true that the destination is less important than the flight itself (I don't think it's even established where the Simpsons were going - wherever it was, they had intended to take Abe with them, in a rare act of generosity toward him, but that turns out to all be the set-up for a Home Alone gag), and that Marge ultimately boards the plane in an effort to prove to herself that she has overcome her problems, which of course she hasn't. That reality is neatly encapsulated in the closing moments when she ends up with a carp swimming around her ankles. "Fear of Flying" is a frustrating episode, if by design, and I suspect that's why a lot of viewers struggle with it. It also has an unusually grim tone, which comes from trawling through all of Marge's half-repressed traumas. For the obviously ridiculous nature of most of her deepest, darkest memories (she had her innocence shattered on her first day of school, not because of all the unsettling falsehoods that Patty and Selma fed to her beforehand, but because she was forced to contemplate the manufactured nature of The Monkees), you still get a strong sense of just show small and vulnerable young Marge was, and how that continues to nibble away at her in the present.
As painful as our voyage through Marge's subconscious is, it ends up feeling like something of a futile effort, and in that regard the opening act involving Homer's personal, more physical quest makes for the perfect prelude. Lisa attempts to inspire Homer to make the best of a negative situation by informing him that the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do opportunity (apparently not, Lisa, although I suppose that Homer's own suggestion, "crisitunity", will suffice). The notion that a crisis inherently equals opportunity is maybe a tad questionable (it certainly wasn't for the 29 who perished in the Flight 571 disaster), but the implied motivational lesson is that a quandary has the potential to challenge us and enable to us to develop and change our situation for the better - although Homer, naturally, takes his crisitunity as affirmation that he should be doing more of the same in a different location. He ends up falling down quite the rabbit hole as he tours every alternative bar in Springfield, including a genteel cocktail bar (from which he is ejected on sight), a strangely familiar bar (which proves too terrifying), a trendy lesbian bar (which has no fire exit - enjoy your deathtrap, ladies) and finally a private airport bar for pilots, which is where things finally start to merge into Marge's aerophobia arc. Obviously, order will not be restored in the universe until Homer is back at Moe's (which doesn't happen here, causing things to feel slightly out of whack at the end, among other reasons). We sense that what's driving him on his quest, besides his craving for a beer, is the underlying desire to put off contemplating the alternative, which is to stay home and spend his evenings with the family, as was implied in his response earlier to Marge's suggestion that he pretend the couch is a bar. Homer keeps on moving in order to avoid facing up to the undesirable issue of his familial responsibility, taking him to increasingly far-out and unlikely venues. Later, when Marge's own crisitunity materialises, and she's asked with traversing her subconscious under the guidance of Dr. Zweig (wonderfully voiced by Anne Bancroft), we can see how her journey mirrors Homer's, as she hops from one uneasy dead end to another, before finally reaching an apparent conclusion in which the basic problem goes entirely unresolved.
We are led to believe that the issue Marge has been avoiding all along has to do with her father, which seems a fair enough subject given that we know so little about the man. The big revelation - she was horrified, as a child, to learn that her father worked as an airline steward - is flagrantly ridiculous, and is immediately undermined in being followed up by an all-out avalanche of unhappy childhood memories, all involving aviation imagery in some form, suggesting that Marge's fear of flying could have originated from any number of sources. Zweig, though, has her reasons for wanting to glibly pass over this "rich tapestry", as she's cottoned on that Homer is the real source of Marge's troubles, although more because of Homer's own actions than anything Marge lets slip, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy (Marge only betrays her resentment toward Homer once, when she relates a recurring Lost In Space-themed dream in which she casts Homer as Dr Smith). Homer's earlier response to Marge's plight - "The important thing is for your mother to repress what happened. Push it deep down inside her so she'll never annoy us again" - tells you all you need to know on why that is (it's also implicit in the episode title, a nod to the 1973 novel Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, which explores female sexuality from the perspective of a heroine looking to transcend the limitations of her unfulfilling marriage). Homer intervenes at this point, insisting that Zweig does not have to make Marge Superwoman, thus ensuring that the really painful issues stay haphazardly swept under the rug. Besides Homer, the other devil lurking in plain sight throughout "Fear of Flying" may be Jacqueline Bouvier, who appears in a couple of Marge's flashback but is never the focus of the discussions, despite an earlier moment in which we were reminded of some of the detrimental ways in which she conditioned Marge to suppress her emotions throughout childhood. (It's hinted, and not just here, that Marge may have as troubled a relationship with Jackie as Homer does with Abe, although this was never really explored in any substantial depth, possibly because Julie Kavner disliked doing Jackie's voice - in fact, I think this may even be her last speaking appearance for a lengthy stretch).
Marge's association with Zweig bows out with a callback to a moment from the Season 4 episode "Selma's Choice", in which we get another glimpse of Marge's peculiar obsession with reenvisioning details from her life in order to project herself into world of the 1991 film The Prince of Tides. Here, though, Marge doesn't explicitly acknowledge the connection, so unless you're familiar with the film, or the novel by Pat Conroy, you may be slightly confused by this reference. Marge tells Zweig that she will continue to honor the difference she has made by thinking, "Lowenstein, Lowenstein..." whenever she hears the wind whistling through the leaves (which is how Nick Nolte's character paid homage to Barbra Streisand's character at the end of that film, more-or-less) and blissfully ignores Zweig's indignant reassertion of her true identity, choosing to keep uttering "Lowenstein, Lowenstein..." as she goes her separate way. I presume this is Marge's attempt to affix her own glossy Hollywood sheen onto the ostensible end of her story, to convince herself of resolution where none exists. It's probably not a good sign that, rather than face the world with a heightened new awareness, she heads out retreating ever deeper into the comforts of fantasy. And, despite Marge's insistence that her surface-scratching with Dr Zweig has changed her life, we know that her newfound ability to get on that plane is ultimately a seriously hollow victory. As Homer had already reminded her, going on vacation is an opportunity for her to clean up after chaotic family in another state. That unseen carp swimming around her at the end, coupled with Homer's nonchalant commentary, seems especially ominous in that regard.
Still, if Marge got to watch Fearless out of the deal then the entire experience wasn't wholly in vain. Forget Alive, Fearless is the one you want to ride with.