Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper: Legend of Duh Bigfoot

"Legend of Duh Bigfoot", the first segment of the third episode of The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper, was not among the privileged few selected for VHS release -  which is a shame, because it is the best episode of the lot in my opinion. It is the best episode, in part, because it's one of a relatively scant number of episodes where Dr Harvey gets to be the protagonist. Given that Harvey's relationship with the Ghostly Trio and the deadly but ultimately redemptive journey it took him on was the best part of the 1995 film, it tends not to be the focal point of the series as much as you would like (although episodes about his relationship with Kat are even fewer and further between). I can only assume that since he's an adult and the parental figure of the household, the producers figured that he wasn't so relatable to the target audience, hence why he was so frequently sidelined. This one, however, is all about Harvey and the Trio, and they get the episode pretty much entirely to themselves. Casper himself appears only briefly, and he shows up purely to register his annoyance at being left out of the story, despite being the title character.

Here, Harvey has persuaded the Trio to vacate Whipstaff and accompany him on a camping trip out in the wilderness, because he believes that an old-fashioned male bonding ritual would be somehow beneficial in curbing their aggression. As they attempt (not very successfully) to rough it in the Friendship Forest, the Trio become increasingly paranoid that Bigfoot (alleged to have been recently sighted in the forest) is stalking them. It's never specified why the Trio would be so afraid of Bigfoot or what they suppose it might do to them (ordinarily, poltergeists have only two things to fear - exorcists and vacuums), but their irrational terror won't let up. The underlying gag is in the obvious, unspoken irony that the Trio, themselves symbols of the mysterious and macabre, should be so disconcerted when confronted by another, very different kind of dark unknown. And it is the incomprehensibility of what they're up against that seems to be fueling their fear - this much is hinted during in scene in which they mock Harvey for suggesting that they take cover from what he presumes to be an earthquake (something might fall on them? No big deal), only to completely change their tune on deducing that the tremors are being caused by some heavy, unidentified creature headed in their direction. Whenever the Trio flee from what they assume to be Bigfoot, they are considerate enough to always take Harvey with them, only there is a running gag that they keep causing him injury by attempting to drag him through walls. This episode also has a very strange twist which, depending on your knowledge of Famous Studios/Harvey Entertainment, may or may not have confused the hell out of you.

It's easy enough to surmise why ghosts should inspire horror in the living. They are unwelcome reminders of our own mortality and of the uncertainty of what lies after death, but they are also symbols of how the past continues to reverberate throughout the present (you don't have to be up against a literal ghost to experience the sensation of being haunted). To that end, Bigfoot, too, might be said to be a kind of ghost. There are a host of conspiracy theories out there linking Bigfoot to the paranormal (the notion that Bigfoot is an extra-terrestrial entity has spawned a whole subculture of conspiracy theories in itself), although that's not what I'm getting at here. I think what's important is that Harvey and the Trio spend the episode being haunted by something that's long dead - more specifically, a part of themselves from which they became divorced long ago - and with that in mind the twist ending feels slightly less arbitrary. "Legend of Duh Bigfoot" is a story of man (the spirit and the flesh) venturing into the wilderness in order to find himself, and not exactly liking what he finds out there.

With the Trio so hung up on the possibility that Bigfoot is on their tail, it falls on Harvey to be the voice of reason. He is not willing to entertain the suggestion that Bigfoot is out there, which he dismisses as "ridiculous", although Stretch is quick to point out the possible hypocrisy - after all, the reason why Harvey connects more easily to a threesome of poltergeists than to the living is because he was shunned and ridiculed by his fellow fleshies for his belief in ghosts (not that an open-mindedness to all forms of strange phenomena is necessarily a requisite for a belief in one - Harvey actually has the evidence that ghosts exist, although I suppose he didn't before he came to Whipstaff). The irony in Harvey's case is that he's gone into the wilderness in order to track down a very different kind of phantom - that is, the "wild guy" he supposes to be lurking inside every man (and ghost) - but that too may be nothing more than a fantasy, a distorted cultural memory of something long faded. Harvey spends much of the episode advocating (albeit ineffectually) the traditional narrative that a trip to the wilderness and a mastery of nature is the ideal route to getting touch with an intrinsic, underlying virility, a stagnation of which he links to a breakdown of self-esteem in modern man (and ghost). Harvey explicitly identifies this as an exclusively masculine rite of passage at several points, going so far as to suggest that traits of this primal survival drive continue to manifest in the stereotypical male behaviour of the present: "Since the first Neanderthal discovered fire, men have gained energy and pride each time one was lit...which explains why most men take their BBQ so seriously!" Harvey's statement is immediately suspect, in that he credits this innovation to the extinct Neanderthal and not to the actual ancestor of modern man (erroneously? What he means by "discovered" is kind of vague), but the association between primitive survival skill and Neanderthal carries the subtle suggestion that the "wild guy" he is determined to coax out of hiding is similarly defunct. Stinkie reminds us of the Neanderthal's ultimate failure to thrive when he theorises that "Neanderthals must have starved to death", an expression of his contempt and bemusement at the expenditure of time and energy required to create a fire from scratch. The observation is double-edged; on the one hand, the ghosts are able to satiate their appetites ("survival" may be a tad redundant in their case) by using their initiative to resourcefully cheat the system - Stretch flies out to an Italian restaurant and plunders the tables after scaring away the patrons - thus demonstrating that they know how to adapt in a world that's long moved on since the days of Neanderthals. But it also reinforces how dependent they are on the comforts of civilisation. Man has not outgrown the survival skills that served his ancestors well so much as surrendered them in favour of an altogether cushier existence. Meanwhile, Harvey discovers that the "wild guy" within is not exactly forthcoming. Despite his proclamations that, "I feel powerful! I feel good! I AM A MAN!", he is unable to get that fire to light (whereupon he gives up altogether and joins the ghosts in their ill-gotten Italian take-out). In other instances, his attempts to summon his inner primordial being prove entirely detrimental to survival, such as when he attempts to show the Trio how to howl, and attracts a hostile wolf pack (in Maine???).


The "wild guy" within is long dead, although its ghost continues to stalk the wilderness and haunt the Homo Sapiens who let it die out with the Neanderthal, and this is where Bigfoot comes in. The lore of Bigfoot, the fabled man-ape of the North American wilderness, is so persuasive, according to anthropologist David J. Daegling, because it speaks to us of the ambivalent manner in which we relate to nature, and of the part of ourselves that we may have abandoned in the woods when we exited via the evolutionary ladder. In Bigfoot Exposed, Daegling writes that, regardless of the authenticity of the Bigfoot legend, the mythos has a symbolism, and a cautionary message all of its own: "Bigfoot signifies the wilderness and the power of nature...no real animal can compare to the Sasquatch as the embodiment of the scale, the power, and ultimately the mystery of the wild." (p.249-50) Daegling sees Bigfoot as functioning as a kind of folkloric "ecomessiah", because its being creates a paradox - it is at once too human and not human enough. We see enough of ourselves in the creature, but also vestiges of the evolutionary path that we managed to avoid traveling. This gives Bigfoot a strange duality, it being a haunting reminder of where we came from while also conveying unease about where we might possibly be headed. Bigfoot is an ominous figure, not so much because it constitutes a threat in itself, but because it is suggestive of the collision course on the horizon, as our encroachment of the natural world grows ever more critical; the conflict between our fulfillment in the present and the preservation of our past. Writes Daegling: "We can catch a fleeting glimpse of our connection to the earth, our origins in the raw wilderness, if Bigfoot remains in our midst." Ben Crair, writing in the Smithsonian Magazine, agrees, stating that the elusive primates are "symbols of pure freedom, living by instinct and foiling every effort to pin them down." Bigfoot's being is threatened by human encroachment but it also defies its human neighbours in its refusal to allow itself to be recognised by science and in remaining always a few steps outside of comprehension.

Here, the phantom threat of Bigfoot is similarly suggestive of a confrontation between past and present, in a way that points to the irreconcilability of man and nature - man split from his "wild guy" eons ago, and the extent of the disconnect has made it impossible for him to now go back and retrace his footsteps. Naively, our heroes think they can wander in as part of a weekend excursion and just pick up where they left off (the episode opens with the ludicrous image of a billboard advertising Bigfoot Shoes, which speaks volumes about the bastardisation of nature and man's desire to refashion it into a personal holiday camp). They soon discover that the "wild guy", in their absence, has taken on an existence all of its own, which serves only to remind him how drastically out of their element they are out in the wilderness - tellingly, when the Trio flee from Bigfoot, their immediate impulse is to make a beeline for the nearest tenet of civilisation, a lakeside log cabin (which again, they commandeer by scaring out the rightful occupants). Harvey persists in his efforts to assert ownership of the wild guy, which he insists is nothing more than a particularly bothersome facet of the human psyche ("You've gotten in touch with your fears; you've even named them!"), as the offscreen stalker outside the cabin becomes ever more of a monstrous void, dangerous not only because it defies comprehension, but because it threatens to drag them down with it into its maelstrom of unknowns. The wild guy has turned against its former master, and now represents an inversion of the assumed man and nature dynamics - rather than reaffirming man's preconceived notions about his authentic self, it calls into question his assurances about his place atop the ecological ladder and the certainty of his survival. Inevitability, we find ourselves building towards a direct confrontation between Harvey and the wild guy he has come in search of (right beforehand, he attempts to rally the support of the Trio by appealing to their sense of virility - "Are we as guys going to stay in here and wait for whatever it is to come and get us?" - but the Trio stay firmly put inside the cabin and force him to go it alone, having decided that this model of masculinity is downright impractical). Harvey heads out into the dark woods to meet with that distant offshoot of his himself and to cajole it into submission - he does so, absurdly, by chanting a variation of the "I Love You" song popularised by Barney The Dinosaur, in an attempt to reconcile himself with the wild other by calling to mind their common origins ("I like you, you like me, we're a downright happy family"). But the face-to-face encounter only emphasises the dissipation, and Harvey is unable to confront that dark shadow from whence he came, which now stands poised to devour him whole (although perhaps not so literally - we'll get onto what form the wild guy actually takes soon enough). The Trio come to his rescue (albeit causing him one further injury in the process), whereupon they all pile into their vehicle and exit the wilderness once and for all, having decided that the only way to retain any sense of self-assurance is to stay the hell away from the woods, where they've figured they have no business being anyway.

Some episode notes:

  • There is a running gag throughout the series (not featured anywhere within the movie) where Stretch will make one observation, Stinkie will make another, related observation, then Fatso will come out with some alliterative non-sequitur and get pounded by Stretch or Stinkie, or both. In this case, "This is nothing!" "This is nadda!" "This is Nadia Comaneci!" Here, Fatso explicitly expounds on the underlying logic behind this seemingly inane compulsion, demonstrating to Stretch that he's simply "adding to the riff", but it does little to endear the process to Stretch. The "Nadia Comaneci" to whom Fatso refers is the Romanian Olympic gymnast, who won five gold medals between 1976 and 1981. The instrumental music piece "Nadia's Theme", composed by Barry De Vorzon and Perry Botkin Jr, is so-called for its association with her, although the piece was originally written as "Cotton's Dream" for the 1971 film Bless The Beasts and The Children. True story: thanks to a mislabeled compilation CD I owned, for years I was tricked into thinking that THIS, of all things, was "Nadia's Theme". I wish it were. What an incongruously depressing ditty.
  • I'm assuming that the fleshies Stretch encounters at Graziano's Pizzeria are supposed to be caricatures of actual people, but I wouldn't like to guess who.
  • The episode's best exchange - Harvey: "Bigfoot is only folklore...". Fatso: "Oh, like Peter, Paul and Mary?"
  • As I noted last time, the way Dan Castellaneta voices Harvey, he usually sounds like a softer-spoken version of Krusty the Clown. When he screams, "OHMYGOSH!" at the very end of the episode, however, I can definitely hear Homer Simpson.
  • So, about that twist ending. Turns out, Harvey is correct about there being no such thing as Bigfoot (in the Friendship Forest, anyway), but he and the Trio are being stalked by something. And that mysterious something is finally revealed to be a freakishly large talking duckling in a bonnet and a diaper. Yes, that's Baby Huey, one of Casper's old brethren from the Famous Studios, and later Harvey Comics. True to form, Huey only wants to play with his reluctant company and cannot comprehend why Harvey and the Trio have scarpered. Initially, I wondered how much sense this ending would have made in 1996 to children who were only familiar with Casper's most recent incarnation. But actually, Huey himself had only recently experienced a revival in 1994, with the TV series The Baby Huey Show, so it's possible that enough children would have known who he was. There, he was voiced (in later episodes) by Joe Alaskey, the voice of Stinkie, who I'm going to assume was also voicing him here.

The (assumed) familiarity of Baby Huey to the viewer creates an obvious irony, for he is no longer the unknown as far as we are concerned, but something exceedingly recognisable, ridiculous and benign. But at the same time, I can see why Harvey and the Trio would be so afraid of him, for he is an embodiment of their disparate roots exactly. The series does after all represent the cartoon translation of a live action envisioning of a cartoon world, and is the end-result of quite the evolutionary journey. And the notion of Baby Huey existing in this particular incarnation of the Casper universe is a little...peculiar? We might accept the presence of ghosts, but a giant anthropomorphic duck is a whole different kettle of fish altogether, and suggests a very different evolutionary trajectory for this specific universe. So what we have at the end is two different cartoon realities that have arisen from a common ancestry and now find themselves inexplicably converging, prompting one to contemplate the other in horror and realises how deeply, disturbingly incompatible they are. Clearly, Harvey and the Trio have strayed too far out of their comfort zone and now their reality is at risk of folding on itself completely. They are better off getting back to that haunted manor where all they have to contend with is one another. Leave the anomalous duck who shouldn't logically exist to trample around his mind-bending natural playground.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #25: Hula Hoops Shoks Eels (They Don't Bite)

The Peugeot 406 Shark, in all his child-chomping glory, might have proved a notch too alarming for some viewers, but the peril he created seemed utterly conventional compared to the stars of the following campaign. For one thing, that shark at least remained in his natural habitat (maybe - just where in the world was that seaside resort supposed to be, anyway?). A far more nightmarish scenario would be if you were unwinding in the privacy of your own bathtub when suddenly an electric eel came slithering down the water pipes to make your acquaintance - which is exactly the scenario to which KP wished to liken the experience of ingesting their new snack foods product, Hula Hoops Shoks, in the early 2000s. The big hook of Shoks is that they had stronger, more intense flavours than regular Hula Hoops, and the tongue-in-cheek message of this campaign was that the only experience on Earth that could possibly prepare you for the sensation of applying a Shok to your taste buds is a close encounter with a live electric eel. Hence, the premise that Hula Hoops were releasing thousands of electric eels into the UK's waterworks as part of an ambitious publicity stunt. Cue eye-popping images of the elongated fishes slithering taps and sinkholes into kitchens and bathrooms and coming face-to-face with unsuspecting Brits as they went about their unsuspecting domestic routine. The whole thing sounds absurd as hell, and yes it was, but KP's twisted sense of humour landed them in slightly hot water when scores of parents wrote to the Independent Television Commission to complain about the effects these surreal images were having on their children.

Before we go into that, though, I want to point out that the creatures featured in this campaign are not actually electric eels. Electric eels, which are native to South America, are massive bruisers with beady blue eyes (also not a true species of eel, but rather a knifefish). If you found one of those in your bathroom then it would be a whole different level of horror. The eels seen here are harmless anguillids with shock effects added on through simple movie magic. That's probably not something that most people would appreciate creeping down their faucet regardless, but I wanted to bring it up.

So then, the controversy. This campaign upset a lot of people, many of them small children, who were so terrified at the thought of encountering an electric eel in their bathrooms that they developed an aversion to going in there altogether, in some cases leading to bed-wetting. According to this BBC article, the ads attracted 133 complaints. It's easy to scoff, but if I were a young child of five or six and I was exposed to these adverts, then I suspect I might still be impressionable enough to wonder whether or not it was real. The voice-over describing Hula Hoops' supposed stunt probably did sound appropriately authoritative to a child, no matter how ridiculous the notion. So I am sympathetic to the ITC's ruling that the ad should not be shown before 19:00, when there was a higher chance that small children might see it. Although not all of the people who objected to the campaign did so on behalf of small children - I seem to recall reading about the variety of responses to the ads on the defunct Ofcom archive many years back, and some viewers apparently complained on the grounds that they had a phobia of eels. It shouldn't surprise me to learn that enough people would squirm at the mere sight of an eel, given that they do bear a passing resemblance to snakes, and ophidiophobia is one of the commonest phobias out there. Still, if personal phobias were considered legitimate grounds for complaints, then I wonder how far I would get complaining about any ad in which I see someone sporting a bikini or a midriff (have I ever mentioned how repulsed I am by the sight of belly buttons?).

Not everyone who complained did so out of a distaste for the eels, however. Some, by contrast, felt only compassion for the featured fish. This Marketing Week article states that some viewers expressed concern about the welfare of the eels used in the campaign. That would be a legitimate concern, but it honestly never crossed my mind that any of the eels involved were harmed, as I suspect that the eels seen being dumped out of buckets and bulldozers weren't actually living. In the second ad in the campaign, we see a man handling an eel before flushing it back down the toilet, and that's definitely a dead eel he's holding. A live one would not be so inert.

As controversial as the campaign was, you'll notice that in the aforementioned BBC article the whole thing was basically upstaged by a ruling made at a similar time by the ITC regarding a campaign for Pot Noodle, in which the cheap and malodorous instant noodles self-described as "the slag of all snacks", and netted twice as much contention. The BBC article reports that that particular campaign received over 300 complaints (the Marketing Week article cites only 63, but there is a two-month gag between the two). Pot Noodle ended up having to change their slogan altogether when the word "slag" was deemed too offensive for TV at any time; the eels at least got to play around in the twilight slot.

Looking at the Shoks campaign beyond the context of the controversy, there is something terribly upsetting about these ads which I think has less to do with the surreal imagery of eels invading our bathrooms than with the overall sense of grimy desolation that pervades them. The mixture of the mundane and the absurd and the retro 1970s aesthetic make it seem like the kind of beguilingly warped gag you might have encountered in the BBC comedy series Look Around You (only less wry and more grotesque in nature), and like that series it conveys an unease about our collective cultural heritage and how it led us to the then-present. The initial ad in the campaign shows an elderly woman having an eel drop in on her in her tower block abode, and the situation is disturbing because it captures something of the corrupted journey of the UK's tower block boom; once a promise of the utopian future for post-war Britain, which envisioned people being brought out of the squalor of the slums and into the beauty of the skies, they wound up becoming dystopian nightmares unto themselves - imposing, monstrous symbols of degradation and isolation. With that in mind, I can accept the eel as a metaphor for the cold, creeping feeling alienation coming to engulf you within the supposed safety your own home, where all hope has gone down the plughole, and all that's left is the serpentine form of despair and squander staring you right in the face. Tonally, it might have been a bit bleak for the selling of snack foods.

Ads from this campaign are currently not available on YouTube (I guess they bring back too many bad memories), so to see them you'll have to go over to ad forum.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #24: Peugeot 406 Shark

In 1999, French car manufacturers Peugeot got the latest spot for their 406 model off to an unsettling start by getting up close and personal with the murky, pointy form of a shark challenging us either to "Run or Fight", "Stand or Fall". This was the third in a trilogy of ads spanning the latter half of the decade for the 406. The first and probably the most famous was "Drive of Your Life" from 1995, which featured, among other things, a man rescuing a small girl from being flattened by a tanker truck, all to the upbeat pop sounds of M People's "Search For The Hero" (it was a strange ad, in that it was very blatantly influenced by the movie Don't Look Now - why else would they have decked the girl out in such a conspicuous red coat? - which makes the celebratory tone seem devilishly incongruous). It opened by asserting that the average person has 12,367 thoughts a day (admit it, though, you made that oddly specific statistic up on the spot), before assuring us that "There is no such thing as an average person". This ad can be seen as a spiritual successor to "Drive of Your Life", not least because it shared the same fixation with images of children in peril (the second ad, featuring Hollywood A-lister Kim Basinger, doesn't quite fit the mold, although it did continue to accentuate the theme of individuality, with the opening proclamation that "We are each as individual as our dreams"). This one is more haunting in tone than "Drive of Your Life", but it follows much the same formula, with various evocative images of human interaction accompanied by a rousing pop tune - in this case "True Colors", originally a hit in 1986 for Cyndi Lauper, here performed by Dominique Moore - while the hero of the piece expresses his singularity by breezing through the streets in a Peugeot 406. It received less fanfare than "Drive of Your Life", though it seems to have resonated with people - do a google search and you'll see that there are numerous sites and forums asking about an ad in which two kids go swimming and are attacked by a shark to the sounds of "True Colors".

If "Drive of Your Life" was a bizarrely feel-good take on Don't Look Now, then this ad (I don't know its official name, so we'll just call it "True Colors") plays like a feel-melancholic take on Jaws. Compared to "Drive of Your Life", the central scenario is presented a lot more starkly, with emphasis on just how exposed and vulnerable those children are as they go too far out and get their first real taste of the cold, dark depths of the world (and as the shark gets a taste of the boy's waist). The shark, of course, is a much-maligned creature and its representation in this particular ad would have done little to repair the damage that the aforementioned Spielberg film did for its public image, but it works as a shorthand for the unanticipated danger looming on the horizon for these carefree kids. This ad is about the loss of childhood innocence (the fact that the children start out at an innocuous-looking seaside resort reinforces this), but the discovery of something every bit as valuable; the children go out to sea and they return safely after their shark encounter, but they are not the same individuals as when they left, having discovered hidden depths within themselves.

There is an overarching story regarding the kids and the shark, which builds to an affecting pay-off at the end, but we also get a lot of extraneous "filler" imagery mixed in with it. These fit in with the broader themes of sacrifice and sensitivity, but unlike "Drive of Your Life", which explicitly set itself up as mimicking a stream of consciousness, "True Colors" doesn't really justify why it keeps cutting away from the main action to bring us all these additional sequences. Some of them, such as the businessman who goes barefoot in the rain after gifting his shoes to a homeless man, and the tough guy who loves his kitty, are evocative in themselves, but since "True Colors" is overall more narrative-driven than was "Drive of Your Life", it's easier to see them as just that; evocative images for evocative images' sake, added in chiefly to give the ad a bit more visual variety. The one which does baffle me slightly is the sequence in which a bride punches a reluctant groom who decides at the altar not to go through with their marriage, which follows more of a slapstick bent than the others (its - intentional? - resemblance to the final scenario in Four Weddings and a Funeral doesn't help in that regard) and I'm not sure how it fits in with the overall theme, unless it's simply that the people in question are being open about their feelings. It all helps to pad out the ad, until we get to the grand finale in which the driver of the car is revealed to be the boy bitten by the shark, now grown up and headed back to the same seaside resort to reunite with the girl. At the end, he takes off his shirt, revealing the gaping scar across his torso. That they're still together at the same resort implies that they still very much inhabit that distant childhood moment, the traumatic incident where everything changed, but ultimately defined them and solidified their connection. The implicit message of the "True Colors" theming, I suppose, is that the man's ostensibly hideous scar is actually a badge of honor, an emblem of the tremendous chivalry within (much like his hideous car?)

Still, according to at least one article I've found online (and I have been able to find precious little information about the actual making of the ad), "True Colors" did not pass without its share of controversy, with no less than fifty viewers making their discontentment known to the Independent Television Commission. Some apparently thought the man's scar was revolting and that he should have kept it concealed in the spirit of tasteful teatime viewing, but it seems that most of the complaints took issue with the broader issue of the ad focusing so extensively on a scenario in which children are in grave danger (they are very clearly shown to have survived and it's not as if the attack itself is at all graphic, although I suppose there were always going to be some who would find the mere concept distressing). According to the article, the ITC would have proceeded with an investigation into the advert to see if it broke any broadcast rules, but I have found no information of the outcome (it's too bad that old Ofcom archive appears to have been liquidated), although it does lead into a small mystery, as I do remember there being two versions of the ad - the longer version (above) from 1999, and a shorter version (below) which did the rounds the following year. The short version cuts down on some of the extraneous material (the handcuffed drink pass is completely excised), but the more curious alteration was the absence of the sequence in which the boy and the girl are seen returning triumphantly to land - instead, we get a repeat of the moment in which the boy is seen to shield the girl from the shark. Was that in response to the complaints, I wonder? If so, I'd find it a bit odd if this was considered the "gentler" of the two, as we're denied the additional comfort of actually seeing the children get back to safety, even if it's still made clear that they do. It can't surely have had anything to do with the boys' torso, and any visible injuries he might have sported, for as he limps back to shore in the original ad there's not really any conspicuous trace of mangled flesh and blood hanging off him (as would presumably have been the case if he'd endured an actual shark bite). Maybe it was just to make it clearer that the kids in the attack and the adults at the end were one and the same (for the benefit of those viewers who didn't pick up on this the first time round)? Regardless, in this version, the kids are left dangling there amid the dark waters, which potentially changes how we might perceive them in the present; no longer triumphant survivors who made it back in (almost) one piece, but drifters who are still emotionally lost in the big wide world, clinging to one another in an effort to stay afloat. This ending is a notch more troubling.

(Sorry, you'll have to go to YouTube for this one.)

So yes, Run or Fight Shark did a small bit of boat rocking within his time, although not as much as the next campaign I'll be examining, which likewise featured some fiendish fishes. Making viewers cautious to go into the ocean is one thing - this campaign made kids too terrified to go into their bathrooms.

Monday, 16 March 2020

One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish (aka And My Last Day on Earth...)

"The War of The Simpsons" wasn't the only occasion where Homer was willing to risk everything in a battle of nerves involving an unusual fish. Slightly earlier that same season, in episode 7F11, "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish", Homer found himself potentially at death's door after dining on ill-prepared fugu at a sushi restaurant. (In fact, there are no less than three episodes in Season 2 where a strange fish plays a significant role, when we also factor in "Two Cars In Every Garage, Three Eyes On Every Fish" - something in the water in 1990/91?) Advised by Dr Hibbert that he has less than twenty-four hours to live, Homer vows to make the most of his last day of life and compiles a bucket list of things he wants to accomplish before the sun is down and his internal organs throw in the towel. (Side-note: Fugu is an actual delicacy in Japanese cuisine, although it can only be legally prepared in Japan (and many other countries) by a specially licensed chef; as a result, most cases of poisoning have tended to be from amateurs who caught and prepared their own puffer. So the good news is that your chances of ingesting the poison are extremely slim if consumed on licensed premises. The bad news is that, if you should find yourself lethally poisoned, then you would probably be dead in considerably less than twenty-four hours, and odds are that you'd also be in too much pain to get terribly far into a bucket list. Hibbert's prognosis about the heart exploding is obviously hooey - actual blowfish-induced poisoning would result in paralysis and eventual death from respiratory failure.)

"One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish" is another of those episodes that never clung especially tightly to my radar as a child, but I've come to appreciate a whole lot more with every passing year I've added to my life. It is, without a doubt, one of the most quietly touching, meditative and profound the series has ever yielded. I've heard the argument from other fans that the episode conceptually fails because we know that Homer's going to survive this, so there's no dramatic tension. Personally, I would question if that was really the purpose of this episode. Did the production team genuinely believe that they could trick any of the viewers who tuned in for the episode's original broadcast back on January 24th 1991 into thinking that they just might kill off one of their principal characters eleven episodes into the season? I think it's a given that we always know that, come what may, our central family are going to pull through. One of the tenets of sitcomdom is that order must ultimately be restored within thirty minutes. Hence, Sideshow Bob cannot kill Bart (except in a Halloween episode, where the rules are slightly different), Homer and Marge cannot run off with whichever Home-Wrecker comes their way, and Maggie can never become particularly well-developed on the vernacular front. "Blowfish" is ostensibly about Homer having to face up to the inevitable a lot earlier than he'd anticipated after eating a life-threatening menu item, but at its core there's a deeper and far more universal concern, which has to do with Homer becoming seriously aware, for the first time in his life, of his own mortality. This is an episode that pits Homer against the clock; time is the antagonist throughout, and it's not an enemy that can actually be defeated. Rather, all Homer can do is to learn how best to live with it. And that's what makes the scenario so relatable. Most of us haven't ingested toxic pufferfish, but all of us must, at some point, contend with our own mortality, the realisation that our time on Earth is limited, and that all of those plans and dreams we intended to fulfill are getting hopelessly lost in the shuffle. The headlining blowfish is itself a minor detail, something to get the main story into motion and to enable a George Takei guest appearance and a few gags at the expense of the sushi restaurants that were a lot more of a novelty at the dawn of the 1990s - this is about Homer realising that, one way or another, time is running out. "Blowfish" succeeds, not because Homer is doing to die, but because we all are. (And yes, I realise that it's a mighty unfortunate time to be making that particular statement, but I digress.)

The opening scene establishes the theme of the episode through very subtle means. From the beginning, there is emphasis on time, only at this stage Homer finds himself at odds with it because it does not move along quickly enough - he's frustrated that Marge's microwaved meatloaf isn't cooking any faster. At the same scene, Lisa evokes the inevitability of death when she laments, "From cradle to grave, etched in stone, in God's library somewhere..." And there is a lot of emphasis on clocks throughout the episode - the bedside alarm clock, the clock at the police station, the "Time For Another Duff" clock at Moe's. Homer's crisis forces him to contemplate time from all angles - the loose threads from his past that are still dangling, the present that he has never truly made the most of, and the world that will continue after he's gone. At the end of the episode, Homer dedicates the supposed last hours of his life to stepping back and contemplating his existence within a much greater, more cosmic scale - that is, the fullness of time itself - when he listens to The Bible on cassette tape, as read by Larry King.

Despite the magnitude of the problem facing Homer, "Blowfish" is one of the more subdued and reflective episodes of the series; the middle act in particular pivots around exploring his relationship with each individual family member in micro-vignettes, as he tries to give each of them the most meaningful-possible send-off (while not letting on to the reality of the situation). And this is certainly the kind of episode that could have only made during the show's earliest seasons - it's hard to imagine today's Homer, or even Homer circa Seasons 5-8, compiling such a modest bucket list that largely has to do spending time with his family, ensuring that he ends things on a positive note and leaves behind a sturdy legacy (nowadays he would probably prefer to harass various celebrities or something). Homer has very few axes to grind at the end of it all. The only item on his list that betrays any kind of anger or resentment at the hand life has dealt him is his note to find time during the day to really stick it to Mr Burns; the only item that shows any sign of deep personal sorrow and regret is his note to make peace with Abe. He goes about using much of the day constructively, priming Bart to be his successor ("After me, you're the man around the house"), taking time to appreciate Lisa's sax-playing talents, which up until now he had always dismissed as an "infernal racket" and making a videotape in an effort to communicate with Maggie's future grown-up self from beyond the grave.

Still, the day does not exactly work out as planned. Inevitably, time slips away at a much faster rate than Homer can keep atop of, and several items on the list have to be jettisoned as Homer is forced to narrow down his real priorities. He gets a massive setback at the beginning of the day, when Marge (who at this point is the only character to share the burden of Homer's knowledge) offers her own item for Homer's list and suggests that they get up early and watch the sunrise together. Come 6:00am, however, when the alarm clock sounds its blaring intrusion and attempts to snap Homer back into the reality of his impending demise, he unconsciously reaches over and smashes the snooze button, just as he'd do on any other Saturday, and ends up sleeping in to 11:29 and losing the entire morning. In thinking he can silence the clock by putting off contemplating the matter of his looming mortality, and attempting, literally, to sleep on it, he awakens to find it looming all the more oppressively. There's the implication that Homer and Marge could have taken the opportunity to watch the sunrise together on any morning of their married lives up until now, but that the opportunity was always passed up because come each morning they were simply too apathetic.

For various reasons, Homer continues to lose out on time as the day progresses. After that fairly sedate middle act, we once again feel the force of the clock ticking when his efforts to bury the hatchet with Abe results in Abe suddenly wanting to make up for lost time that Homer no longer has. They end up having to cram the relationship they never took the time to develop into a single afternoon, at the expense of the time Homer had allocated for other personal ambitions such as going hang gliding and planting a tree. It looks, on the surface, if Homer is paying the price for his magnanimity, but there's also the insinuation, as he finally breaks away from Abe, that Homer is only now having to face the consequences for numerous years worth of misspent time. He observes that Abe is "a little love-stared", seemingly not grasping the insight that he would not be facing this problem if he had not waited until the last minute to reach out to his father. A further act of ill-judgement also costs him dearly, when he finds himself being booked for speeding and has to call on his friend Barney to bail him out. Nathan Rabin, in his review on The AV Club, is critical of the episode's third act for taking what he calls "a pointless detour...the only real benefit to this subplot was that it afforded us a sadly funny glimpse into the sordid sad sack existence of Barney." I, however, disagree. Not only does it up the tension in the final act, but it's also an example of an unforeseen occurrence throwing Homer's plans into disarray (as with life in general, there's an awful lot that happens that you don't see coming, and it can really throw a wrench into whatever ambitions you planned on fulfilling - take 2020 so far, for example; as this month began, I wasn't exactly anticipating that we'd all be cooped up indoors by the middle of it). Its primary function is to get that inaudible clock ticking even louder. As the night sets in, Homer admits to Barney that there was an awful lot that he intended to do that day that he simply didn't have time for, a simple, matter-of-fact statement that rings sadly profound, in how it alludes to the various unfilled dreams and ambitions we will inevitably have to rule out over the course of a whole lifetime. "Blowfish" is in effect about Homer attempting to live his whole life in a single day, and experiencing the highs and the lows, and all of the stuff that simply gets lost in between.

Although Homer has already abandoned plans to have one last drink with his boozing companions at Moe's Tavern, Barney manages to twist his elbow into going after all, although it comes at the expense of the closing window of opportunity for spending his final evening on Earth with his family (again there is the insinuation that, even on his prospective last day, Homer is unable to break the cycle of misspent time by which he's lived up until now). As with "Homer's Night Out", there's a deliberate contrast between the cleanliness of the family home and the squalidness of life beyond the bounds of the family unit (we get another fleeting window into perpetual bachelor Barney Gumble's unsanitary domestic terrain), and the two are depicted as being perpetually at odds with one another (Moe and Barney mock Homer for feeling the pressure to contact Marge). And yet Homer ends up extending those very feelings of familial warmth to the greasy clientele at Moe's Tavern, whom he addresses with a farewell speech that seems reminiscent of how a parent would talk lovingly to their child: "Sometimes, when I'm at work, I think of you and smile". It's a double-edged moment, at once sweet and sincere and also slightly perverse, once we realise that he is effectively addressing them in lieu of his actual family, who are waiting at home for the final dinner that will not be happening (in one sense, he does get to accomplish his goal of having one last dinner with his family, only it's a liquid dinner and the family in question are the barflies he's long been inclined to hang out with in order to avoid the responsibilities of home). He does, however, remain committed to fulfilling the last item on his list - to be "intimat" with Marge - to the extent that he's forced to leg it back home in the style of Dustin Hoffman's character from The Graduate.

Homer makes it back, and as he and Marge share their last tender moments in the bedroom we switch to more serene indicator of time, in the brilliant moon in the night sky. Homer then slips away from Marge, bids his farewells to each of his children as they sleep, and then retires to an armchair in the living room with a cassette walkman loaded with Larry King reading aloud the Good Book. Homer's impending demise might have put him in an unusually spiritual mood, although the silent stoicism with which he attends (and occasionally fast forwards) King's readings suggests that his main intention is to obtain solace by contextualising his own existence within the broader being of the universe. Homer decides to close things out with the reminder that his life was only a minuscule part of something much larger, a tiny speak in a vast cosmos that stretches beyond all comprehension. In a sly subversion, however, this ends up accentuating the immensity of the events we have just witnessed, so that the entire cycle of creation and destruction (or at least God threatening to smite the Earth with a curse) ends up becoming a tiny footnote to Homer's most important and most apocalyptic of days. Of course, it's also an excuse to throw in a few digs at the expense of books on tape (which, as per the DVD commentary, were also something of a novelty at the time), and King gives a hilariously irreverent sign-off ("I love the San Antonio Spurs, by the way, if you're betting in the NBA this year...") that nevertheless feels genuinely chilling, for how his abrupt, mid-sentence departure coincides with Homer's sudden collapse. The universe ends, both on King's tape and in Homer's living room, with neither a bang nor a whimper but with the mellow sound of horn music murmuring out innocuously as the sun rises over a white-bread suburbia.

But of course, Homer is alive. This much does not come as a surprise to us. Marge treads downstairs the following morning and finds Homer in an inert but drooling state, a sure indicator that his body has not yet given up on life. As she rouses Homer from his sleep with the triumphant declaration that he is alive, Homer does not at first process what she is saying - again, he responds much as he would on any other morning, with half-awake bewilderment, but when it finally does seek in, he bellows out the news of his vitality with the full-hearted enthusiasm of someone who is only now, for the very first time, coming to understand what it truly means to be alive. On the DVD commentary, the production team joke that the ending is, when you strip it right back, a pretty flagrant case of cheating, as it offers no explanation for its final outcome. We spend the episode continuously hearing that Homer is going to die, and then by the miracle of plot convenience he's still standing by the fade-out. I have to admit, though, that I don't get terribly hung up on this point. I suppose it's enough to assume that there was always a slim chance he could survive the fish's toxins and he simply beat the odds - although, irrespective, it's also something of a cheat that Homer never at any point shows any symptoms of ill or threatened health. But none of that is too important, for the episode speaks to us on a far deeper level. Homer has come to the realisation that each new day is a gift in itself, and it is his awareness of his own morality that has afforded him this wisdom. It's a conclusion that recalls the Buddhist proverb, "Every morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most." Obviously, Homer is still going to die eventually, as are all of us. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe not for many years from now. For now, though, we are still here, and have another opportunity to get started on whatever it was that that we were unable to get around to yesterday - and that in itself, the episode posits, is something worth celebrating.

It is a powerful ending, allowing Homer the exultant dignity of his survival and his renewed perspective on life, before subtly undercutting it all with one final joke suggesting that Homer was, ultimately, unable to put his new insight into practice and that, as time became less of a commodity to him, he sunk right back into his groove of living out each day in the same listless fashion as he did before. An end-credits sequence shows Homer seated on his coach, munching on pork rinds while watching a televised bowling tournament, having numbed himself to the sounds of that clock, which continues to tick away at the same rate it did before. "Blowfish" is, in the end, a punchline episode, and it ends up appearing that the entire experience has existed purely in service of this one closing gag. What's interesting, though, is that the punchline it ends with is completely different to the punchline that was initially planned - and, what's more, you can still see the seeds for the original punchline being sown conspicuously all throughout the episode. For an episode that's all about the tying up of loose ends, there are a number of threads that are just left hanging. Homer's bucket list includes no acknowledgement, positive or negative, of neighbour Ned Flanders, although their paths end up crossing anyway on Homer's prospective last day on Earth. When Ned invites Homer to a BBQ he's hosting the following day, Homer's pettiness gets the best of him, and he's compelled to exploit his tragic circumstances as a means of inconveniencing the neighbour who never wished anything but the best for him. We likewise don't see how things work out with regard to Abe, or to Burns, who doesn't escape an unmannerly heckling on Homer's last day, but only because Homer had the good (or possibly ill?) fortune of spotting him in public on his drive to Moe's Tavern. On the DVD commentary writer Nell Scovell explains that the script originally had an epilogue with Homer having to deal with the consequences of those aforementioned actions. We find him slaving away over a BBQ, grudgingly having to make good on his promise to Ned, as he faces a hounding from Abe, who now wants to spend his every waking moment with him, AND an angry telephone call from Burns, who wants to see him in his office on Monday. Marge approaches Homer and asks him if he is not happy just to be alive, to which an exasperated Homer offers no response. It's a logical punchline, albeit much more openly sour in tone, but the punchline they went with was undoubtedly the more affecting of the two. And it seems that we have time itself to thank for that - according to Scovell, the epilogue was cut simply because the episode was at risk of overrunning. And in the end, those loose ends are all the better for being left dangling. In the scheme of things, none of them are very important, for we know exactly how each of them will play out anyhow - being the good neighbour that he is, Ned will forgive Homer, Abe and Homer will continue to have their ups and downs and Burns will, in all odds, have forgotten who Homer is by Monday morning. We are content for Homer's lingering troubles to quietly fade into obscurity, as Homer becomes one with infinity, gazing passively at that bowling tournament as if he has all the time in the world.

Oh wow, remember the days when we could actually go outside for things like brunch and bowling? The irony is that, at this current time of writing, Homer's tactic of staying at home, isolating himself on the couch and living off foods with a high shelf-life is a solid strategy for survival. Except that all bowling tournaments would certainly be cancelled. If there's a lesson we can glean from both Homer's experience and from our own recent turn of events, it's that nothing in life should be taken for granted. Because really, you have no idea when and just how rapidly things are going to change.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (aka Into The Blue Again, After The Money's Gone...)

Note: this review was written as part of the Pop Stars Moonlighting blogathon being hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews from 12th to 14th March.

Also, spoilers right out of the gate.

The ending to Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Paul Mazursky's 1986 take on Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning, is nothing if not confounding.

The film follows the adventures of Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte, who went on to star in this blog's favourite ex-musical, I'll Do Anything), a down-on-his-luck drifter who ends up being inducted into the lavish household of Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss), a millionaire who made his fortune selling clothes hangers to motel chains, after Dave catches Jerry attempting to end it all in his swimming pool. Dave's life of material luxury is experiencing something a drought on the emotional front - his marriage to Barbara (Bette Midler) has long run out of steam, prompting Dave to seek an alternative outlet in a not-so-illicit affair with the family maid Carmen (Elizabeth Pena), while Barbara attempts to turn a blind eye by immersing herself in a variety of New Age philosophies. Jerry's arrival at first appears to provide Dave with the radical shake-up he has long been craving, but over time the novelty of having a vagabond around the house begins to wear off, and Jerry, far from cleaning up his act under the guidance of the Whitemans, comes increasingly to represent a threat to the equilibrium, and to Dave's sovereignty, something he demonstrates through his systematic seduction of all three female members of the household, starting with Barbara, then Carmen, and finally Dave's 19-year-old daughter Jenny (Tracy Nelson). Indeed, one suspects the only thing preventing Jerry from also seducing Dave's son Max (Evan Richards), who is heavily insinuated to be a closet gay, and possibly even Dave himself is the fact that this was the mid-80s, and no mainstream Hollywood production would ever have been so audacious at the time. One might posit that, being a mainstream Hollywood production, the film was likewise not audacious enough to follow through on Renoir's ending, substituting it with something more befitting of the studio playbook. Unlike his French counterpart, who ultimately resumes his life of vagrancy, Jerry flirts with the idea of returning to the streets, taking with him a souvenir of his stay in the form of Matisse, Barbara's neurotic dog and the bane of Dave's pre-Jerry existence. Apparently, though, Jerry realises that he's found belonging and acceptance among the Whitemans, who forgive him his foibles, and chooses to settle with them.

It's an ending that struck a bum note with A.A. Dowd of The AV Club, who who complains that,"Down And Out only really falters in its final moments, with an ending that’s a bit more sentimental than the loopy one Renoir concocted." Ostensibly, it's the textbook Hollywood ending, and yet it doesn't exactly play like one. Shelia Benson of the Los Angeles Times was onto something when she described the final sequence as "enigmatic and curiously unsatisfying". It is a strange ending, and not just because it involves the entire Whiteman household congregating around Jerry as he gets down on all fours and attempts to feast on pate freshly harvested from a neighbour's garbage can. For all of the unity on display in that closing sequence, it's an ending that seems deliberately engineered to be unsettling, as if goading us into contemplating if we really are happy with the outcome in question. There are three details in particular that serve to disturb our sense of warm resolution:

  • By the end of the film, Matisse seems to have graduated from being a manifestation of the neurotic savagery of his uptown environs to the facilitator of family togetherness. It his he who alerts Jerry to the presence of the Whitemans, who have followed him out into the streets. He also accompanies Jerry as he makes his way back toward the family. Look closely, however, and you'll see that Matisse never actually enters back in through the gate. In fact, the dog seems to completely disappear from the scene for the final moments of the film.
  • The last one to step back through the gate is Dave, who lingers thoughtfully outside for a few moments, as if contemplating if he himself really wants to return to the life that lies within.
  •  As the end-credits scroll across the screen, we the viewers remain out in the streets among the garbage cans of Beverly Hills, where another, unknown vagrant, Jerry's doppelganger, wanders into view and past the camera.

Like the opening sequence to film, which shows Jerry drifting through the streets of Los Angeles with his dog Keroauc and a cart filled with various goods pilfered from trash cans, the ending is accompanied by "Once in a Lifetime", a 1981 single for New York art rockers Talking Heads, with its emphasis on the indifference and interchangeability of life (actually a parody of the kinds of proclamations that band frontman David Byrne would regularly hear from radio evangelists), and its repeated references to the water that proves integral to the narrative progression of Down and Out in Beverly Hills. It is this very sense of existential malaise encapsulated in the song that fuels Dave and Jerry's unlikely friendship, and eventually their rivalry. Jerry, who was outcast and forgotten by society long ago, reaches his lowest ebb after awakening to discover that Keroauc, the one being whose companionship he truly valued, has randomly upped and left him in his sleep, having been lured away by the seductive charms of a young woman with a paper bag filled with treats. His frantic search for his double-crossing dog leads him onto the Whitemans' grounds, where, after surveying his own reflection in their immaculately-kept swimming pool, he attempts to drown himself. Before he does so, he takes a second look at his reflection, and this time sees only a blank silhouette. Jerry's sudden appetite for self-destruction constitutes a rejection of the self; it is also cleansing, an opportunity to resurface as somebody else entirely. In that sense, the pool acts as a portal into another reality entirely, and the cleansing is experience not only by Jerry, but by Dave, who has the privilege of getting to dive in and deliver Jerry into this brand new state of being. Jerry's deliverance by Dave signals the beginning of a second shot at life for them both, or so Dave would undoubtedly love to believe. Dave's generosity toward Jerry offers him a gift-wrapped opportunity to jettison the guilt he complains of at the start of the film, but it is also implied that Dave takes such an interest Jerry in part because he sees him as his own distorted reflection; an inkling of how his own life might have turned out in an alternate universe where things did not run in his favour. As he tells Jerry, in outlining his own self-congratulatory case history of going from selling lingerie from the backseat of his father's oldsmobile to his present status as a clothes hanger mogul, "You gotta be in the right place at the right time...do you think I knew I was going to be in the hanger business?" Jerry, meanwhile, would appear to confirm Dave's view that one's station in life is determined purely by the circumstances of any given day; he recounts his own tragic case history of how he tumbled ever downward on the rungs of the social ladder, which involved a shot at an acting career that was thwarted when he was dumped by old flame Linda Evans and then deeply affected by the loss of his sister to leukemia. Dave, fed up with the stagnancy of his own life, seems appreciative of the glimpse Jerry provides into how things could just have easily gone for him had he not struck up a conversation with that businessman opening up a chain of motels on that fateful day, even going to far as to spend a night out on a beach in the company of Jerry's peers. At one point, Barbara telephones a radio shrink to vent her frustrations at Dave's latest passion project (she does so, characteristically, under a false identity, recasting herself as 26-year-old Dawn from Toluca Lake). The shrink suggests that Dave is "living a vicariously freer life through the presence of this displaced person," and while we suspect there is more than an inkling of truth to this, we likewise sense that Dave's infatuation with Jerry and with life on the streets never amounts to much more than simple novelty. This much is evident in the sheer condescension with which he later recounts the experience of camping out with a community of bums: "They live like animals, but they have great capacity for joy."

Dave may be drawn to Jerry for what he sees as an enviable lack of responsibilities, but paradoxically he must also deprive Jerry of that very freedom - have him leashed, groomed and neutered and inducted into the hanger business that he personally excelled in. His interest in Jerry, ultimately, has less to do with validating Jerry's existence as any more meaningful and fulfilling as his own than in doing a nice redemption job on the dirty bum who fell so low that he tried to destroy himself in his swimming pool. In part, Dave's desire to make a model hanger businessman out of Jerry may stem from his lack of a positive relationship with Max, and his need to mold someone in his own image in his place, but more crucial is Dave's need to eliminate the threat that the wily nonconformist poses to his own existence; by goading Jerry into following in his own footsteps, he is effectively reaffirming the supremacy of his own path. When Dave finally realises that Jerry is incorrigible, he is compelled to violently return him to the portal from whence he came, hurling Jerry back into the swimming pool and attempting to submerge him beneath the waters.

The film's greatest enigma is Matisse the dog, an animal who does not live like one and in the beginning has seemingly no capacity for joy. Although Barbara tolerates Dave's adulterous activities (she later professes to Jerry that she does so under the naive belief that Dave is simply seeking a sexual reawakening that he will duly transfer onto her), Matisse makes his disapproval plain; he lingers at the bottom of the stairway, waiting to snarl at Dave as he tiptoes down in the middle of the night, and while he can be temporarily placated with biscuits, he manages to sabotage Dave's sexual liaisons by activating the intruder alarm and bringing a squadron of police cars to the household. Matisse's uncanny behaviour seems to be rooted more in animosity toward Dave than loyalty to Barbara, whom he flabbergasts with his refusal to eat any of the expensive dog foods she buys him. Elsewhere, Matisse also attacks one of the family's neighbours, recorder producer Orvis Goodnight (Little Richard). It would be easy to label Matisse as the dog from Hell, were he not played by such an appealing-looking border collie (Mike, who would also appear in the film's short-lived TV spin-off*, and the 1986 Disney Channel movie Spot Marks the X). When Jerry arrives, Matisse takes an instant shine to him; in fact, it is Matisse who beckons Jerry onto the Whiteman grounds in the first place, for Jerry is drawn in by the sounds of Matisse barking, desperately believing it to be the sounds of his own lost dog Keroauc. To infer that Jerry has a special way with dogs would be to ignore the sad truth that Keroauc willfully abandons him at the start of the film, having woken up one day and apparently decided to give up being a vagrant's dog and go with the first passer-by who offers him snacks. Nevertheless, it would be fair to suppose that Jerry hits it off with Matisse because he himself is so much like a dog. His hairy, disheveled appearance at the start of the film gives him a heavy canine aura, and he later reveals himself to be something of a pet food gourmet. At the end of the film, Dave uses a very dog-like metaphor to describe Jerry's own actions, assuring him that, "I gave you a hand and you bit it." Most tellingly, though, is the manner in which he challenges Dave's authority by urinating onto his flower bed (could there be a starker metaphor?)

In one of the film's most revealing scenes, Jerry is able to coax Matisse out of his self-inflicted famine by getting down on all fours and eating from his bowl of puppy chow. Jerry tells Barbara that Matisse's troubled behaviour stems from the delusion that he too is one of the humans: "There are no dogs around to teach it, so it's got no dog friends and no dog family, nothing to relate to." We end up sensing that this is really what's going on between Jerry and the Whitemans - that the Whitemans themselves are a pack of dogs who've been driven out of their wits by the daily pressures of having to pretend to be human, and while Dave may see it is his mission to teach Jerry to put on a suit and tie and be one of the people, what they really crave is the influence of another dog to teach them how to get back in touch with their underlying canine urges. It is tempting to view Matisse as a totem of Jerry himself - his early hostility toward Dave foreshadows Jerry's incoming insubordination, the dog is seldom far from Jerry's side, and in one of the film's more whimsical sight gags Matisse can be seen attempting to imitate Jerry's Tai chi exercises. Yet it seems all the more accurate to suggest that Matisse is an extension of his owners, his various messy neuroses providing an uncomfortable mirror image to their own quirks and eccentricities. Matisse's aggression toward Dave is a shorthand for Barbara's own repressed anger (or alternatively, Dave's self-loathing), while his refusal to eat recalls Dave's comments about Jenny's supposed anorexia (we might take issue with the fact that, Jenny's anorexia, if indeed she is anorexic, is treated as yet another mild eccentricity of the privileged, and not a debilitating illness that could potentially threaten her life). Later, when Jerry seduces Barbara, the dog observes and appears to share in Barbara's orgasm.

Before Jerry arrives, the Whitemans are drowning in their own phoniness. Throughout his stay, Jerry coaxes out many of their repressed feelings and urges, bringing Barbara out of her sexual drought, encouraging Max to talk to his father about his sexuality (this is never ruminated on explicitly, although Max does indirectly out himself to Dave by dressing up in androgynous fashion at his swanky Christmas party), and convincing Carmen to vent her feelings of anger toward her employers by delving into communist literature. All the same, Jerry is not liberating their inner dog so much as wheedling it to perform at his command, much as he does with Matisse in training him to do a "half-gainer" from the pool's diving board. He figures out what's at the core of each individual household member's canine nature so that he can manipulate it to his own advantage, his ultimate goal being to topple Dave's position as master of the house. And getting in touch with their inner mutt does little to shake the Whitmans' delusions of humanity. To the contrary, Jerry's sexual conquest of Barbara only sends her hurtling ever deeper down another avenue of fantasy. She tells Jerry that, "It's good to be back in the real world again," yet we are never led to believe that her sudden attraction to Jerry (who up until this point had only repulsed her) runs any deeper than Dave's. The highly theatrical manner with which she describes the experience would imply that Jerry is but a newly-discovered novelty for her to indulge in, every bit as frivolously as she does the assorted New Age programs she has used, up until now, to conceal her bitterness over her loveless marriage to Dave. At one point, The Divine Miss M regales Jerry with a rendition of the standard love ballad "You Belong To Me", which itself hints at the illusory nature of her bond with Jerry ("Remember when a dream appears, you belong to me").

At the end of the film, following the climactic confrontation in which Dave attempts to banish Jerry back down into the depths of the pool, Jerry admits that he too has been playing a role all along, and confesses that his stories about Linda Evans, his failed acting career and his deceased sister, among others, were all fabrications. When challenged on this, he asks Dave what he actually wanted to hear: "Real sorrow, real heartbreak? It's boring." It is this revelation that left such a sour taste in Benson's mouth; she stated that, "Mazursky undercuts everything we've come to believe about the man; we're left feeling cheated, as though Jerry had been neutered into a family pet." There remains, however, some ambiguity on this point. Following his re-cleansing in the chlorinated waters, it seems that Jerry is once again discarding one identity and assuming another, although which, if either, is the "real" Jerry? The film has certainly done enough to infer that Jerry isn't bluffing when he reflects on his past accomplishments, even if, like Dave, we are occasionally inclined to question his credibility. When he arrives at the Whitemans' property, he is already a full-fledged pianist and masseur, and he certainly knows his Shakespeare, casually reciting Hamlet's "What a piece of work is man" monologue in the midst of a conversation with Dave (that he named his dog after the writer Jack Keroauc likewise hints at his educated background). When he admits to having made everything we know about him up, however, all we have to go on is his word. Is Jerry only now, in fact, telling the Whitemans what he thinks they want to hear, just so that he can be excused from the bridge he figures he's burning? Perhaps Jerry, who is accustomed to drifting from one place to another without ties, has a similar outlook on identity - ultimately, all identities are constructs that can be regularly disassociated and discarded at will, much as Keroauc opted, quite out of the blue, to give up on being Jerry's dog.
In the end, I have to disagree with Dowd about the conclusion being excessively sentimental. I think whatever sentiment is there is off-set by the oddness of it all; whichever way you slice it, it is a troubling resolution. As Jerry makes his unceremonious departure from the Whiteman grounds, he promises Matisse the world: "There's lots of places we can go: 'Frisco, Santa Fe, Ensenada...I'll show you the best parks to sleep in, beaches where the coconuts flop into the palms of your hands." His enticing sales pitch is immediately undermined when he proceeds to root through the neighbours' garbage for "only the best gourmet chow in town", and pulls out a tin of pate; once again, he gets down on all fours and invites his canine friend to join him, but on this occasion Matisse isn't biting. He's too distracted by the reappearance of the Whitemans, who have now all gathered together in the street to watch their old companion's attempted dinner date. There are a couple of ways to interpret this final sequence. We might see this closing display of unity among the Whitemans as a sign that their mutual attachment to Jerry has, in fact, brought them together, and that all of them, in congregating out on the streets among the garbage cans, are entering the real world for the first time. That no further words are spoken between Jerry and his audience might be taken as an expression of sincerity, the suggestion that a genuine human (or canine) connection has been forged. The more cynical interpretation would be that Jerry, on realising that there is an audience gathered around and watching him eat garbage, suddenly feels incredibly self-conscious, and is shamed into getting back on two feet and accepting Carmen's more palatable offer of a cappuccino. In either case, as Jerry heads back toward the Whitemans he visibly attempts to tidy his hair with his hand, indicating that he does intend to clean himself up in order to fit in with his adopted family. Is Jerry, then, a person who has lived like a dog but has finally learned, under the influence of his high-class hosts, how to be a person? I would argue that Mazursky and Capetanos' script is, in all other respects, too sly and subversive to ultimately succumb to the very condescension it has spent so much time, up until now, ruthlessly satirising. I prefer the reverse interpretation - that Jerry is a dog who has spent enough time in the company of other dogs who like to play at being human that he's grown accustomed to their game of play-pretend. Jerry decides that his place is right here among these phonies. And his domestication leaves us feeling melancholic. We get a small hint that some of his animal nature remains intact, in the seductive smile he flashes at Jenny, but Matisse's absence from the final arrangement is bothersome, as it suggests that the dog, literal and figurative, must be surrendered at the gate. To return to the Whiteman grounds is, it's inferred, to retreat back into that world of falseness and self-delusion, and in the closing moments we see Dave waver on whether or not to reaffirm his own commitment to the status quo. Now that the newcomer has been formally assimilated into the household, a man who could even have been himself under a different set of circumstances, he potentially has the opportunity to slip away then and there, discarding his identity as Dave the hanger mogul and insensitive husband and going in search of those fabled coconut beaches, confident that his place within the Whiteman household has been filled.

Ultimately, Dave returns to the falsities of his family home, but we remain outside, among the garbage of the real world. We are not alone for long, for we are joined shortly by the unfamiliar vagrant who comes pushing his own loaded cart along the street as the credits roll, wandering, seemingly, to no place in particular. Now that Jerry has left the outside world, it appears that another individual has already arrived to assume the vacant gap. This unknown vagrant is symbolic of the wider world that continues to pass the Whitemans by, and of the "real sorrow" to which Jerry had accused them of being willfully oblivious, and which which shows no signs of slowing down. He remains a mystery, a blank figure waiting to bestowed with an identity. For now, his main purpose seems to lie in simply haunting the streets, a reminder of the possible path that Dave did not pursue, and which will forever be lingering in the world outside his door, stirring in its omnipresence.

* The TV spin-off aired on the Fox network in 1987 but was cancelled after eight episodes, leaving five episodes unaired. Mike and Evans Richards were the only cast members from the movie to return.


Wednesday, 4 March 2020

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #23: Sony MiniDisc Croc

The MiniDisc sits alongside the Betamax and the Capacitance Electronic Disc in the array of misfit formats that might at some point have dictated our media consumption in alternate timelines but in this particular life just weren't meant to be. When Sony first launched the MiniDisc in 1992, audiophiles the world over could not contain their indifference. Believing in the strength of their product, Sony persisted, and in the latter stages of the decade there was an extensive marketing blitz designed to relaunch the MiniDisc as the must-have music innovation for the up-to-the-minute music lover. The results were mixed - MiniDiscs found popularity in Japan, and to a lesser extent the UK, but never gained much of a foothold in the US. And the window of opportunity for making any kind of long-lasting impression on popular consciousness was just about running out. We were entering the new millennium, and the age of the mp3 player was not far away. In early 2013, the MiniDisc was officially pronounced dead, with Sony announcing that it was pulling the plug once and for all on the format revolution that wasn't. You can read more about the MiniDisc's troubled shelf life here.

The benefits of the MiniDisc, so far as I can tell, were that they were recordable and could fit snugly in your pocket, although I never got close enough to learn any more. I have to confess that it all pretty much passed me by at the time, and I still have no first-hand experience with the format whatsoever. But it made its mark nevertheless. For me, the legacy of the MiniDisc was this strangely nightmarish advert that for a while seemed to show up in every theatrical preview reel I sat through in the late mid-90s (not the ad mentioned in the above Guardian article, in which a gormless-looking disc devotee has strangers go naked in public at the flick of a finger - this one was way cooler). The one-minute ad emphasised the MiniDisc's recording capabilities through the arresting imagery of a man being pursued across the desert by his doppelganger, who mimicked his every last movement. Along route, they encounter a crocodilian (every bone in my body wants to call that creature a crocodile, but I'm not confident enough in my ability to distinguish crocodiles and alligators from the fleeting footage we get, so I'm doing the non-committal thing and calling it a crocodilian), who lunges at the original but ignores his clone - but the clone reacts anyway, as if being willed by a force beyond his control. Spooky.

The croc earns the "horrifying" tag because I used to genuinely dread its appearance as a pre-teen, what with that ominous ocular close-up, the blurred crocodilian perspective shot and that rapid attack on the passing protagonist, but really, the croc's just part of an all-round very freakish and disturbing milieu. I find every last component of this ad to be strangely off-kilter, and they saved by far the most unsettling detail for last. It builds toward an appropriately gut-churning climax, in which the protagonist and his duplicate take a death-defying leap from the top of a bridge down onto a train in motion, and...well, watch the ad for yourself and see what happens. That final reveal...it's just nasty.

I appreciate that the point of this whole uncanny scenario is that the doppelganger is such a "brilliant copy" that he'll replicate the original's actions perfectly, regardless of whether it makes sense for him to do so or not, but still, you would expect there to be a lot more blood at the end in that second carriage. The man did just leap down into a pile of moving rubble, after all. I think the most minor scuff he'd be looking at would be a broken ankle.

For those of you who weren't there at the time, what can never recreated from a mere YouTube upload is the searing intensity you always felt in having this blaring at you from the big screen. The accompanying music track - "Chinese Burn" by English alternative rock duo Curve - is clearly supposed to be the kind of cutting-edge track you would go for if you were an up-to-the-minute 90s audiophile chic enough for a miniature disc that fits in your pocket, but its throbbing, feverish energy only adds to the overall sense of adrenalin-spiking urgency. There's also the protagonist's rather strange choice of abode - the man is so cutting-edge that he not only uses MiniDiscs, but lives in a swanky space age pod out in the middle of nowhere - which in practice looks downright surreal. Obviously, the intended outcome is that I'm supposed to be impressed by the actor's athletic prowess, an embodiment of the nimble capabilities of the MiniDisc format, and that's all very well-staged, but I'd say the ad plays just as convincingly as a horror piece as it does an ostentatious pose strike. The concept of a person being chased by their doppelganger is inherently unsettling, because it suggests that there's an alternate version of the self vying for sole survival rights; the doppelganger attempting to assume the place of the original is a familiar horror trope. Here, though, it's obvious that the brilliant copy is the one being victimised. The croc might give him a free pass, but he's clearly the protagonist's puppet, an accessory being dragged along on this chase whether he wills it or not, to the point where he's finally forced down onto a pile of speeding rocks and isn't even permitted the freedom to scream out in pain. This is some serious Tethered grotesquery going on right here.

Really though, if you want to get into failed media formats of the waning 20th century, we should go over the Tiger Electronics HitClip some time. I have no idea what life is like the alternate universe where those became a mainstream mainstay, but I'll bet it's very screwy all-around.