So I’m feeling really good tonight, and only slightly tired, and “hosted” a “party” in my living space, making this the first weekend I’d intentionally done anything social in a long, long time. I’m not sure what to write a blog about. I don’t really believe in using a blog as a diary – “Dear blog, today was the best day ever…” – no, fuck that. If some random person is going to search for “pussy fuckers” on Google and find me, I want to give them something worth reading. Maybe subtly alter their worldview in some way. Maybe turn them on to something new and awesome. I feel like I’ve been overusing the word “awesome” lately. But fuck it. I can overuse whichever adjectives I want.
Earlier, Ashley and I were discussing how “stealing” factors into the creative process and the whole history of fiction. It factors in heavily. Everyone steals from someone else at one point or another – that’s where artistic influence comes in. And, as we concluded, the line between influence and thievery is a thin one, but it’s there. And after all, the whole history of progress in the arts has been a matter of one person stealing from another who stole that from someone else in the first place. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t talent involved. It just means that, well, the idea or storyline or what have you was good. Beside that, consider the disconnect between content and form: you can take the same story, but one writer might make it suck, and a writer a century later might turn it into a classic.
Also in film: The Maltese Falcon was the 3rd adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel, and the best. Dracula has been filmed innumerable times – did Murnau, Browning, Terence Fisher, Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola, Guy Maddin, and more just not have better ideas and have to steal from Bram Stoker in order to make a good movie? Of course not. But the story is a damn good one. Similarly, everyone loves to make their own version of Hamlet. Is it because there aren’t any other ideas? No, but this idea works really, really well. I’d elaborate on this but I’m getting slightly sleepy and the deeper thoughts are just not coming.
Watch this first, or the following analysis will make little sense:
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, this is the “Space Madness” episode of the cartoon Ren & Stimpy, first broadcast in 1991. Recently, for whatever reason, it popped into my head that I consider “Space Madness” to be a genuinely important, meaningful, and well-made piece of cartoon art, and I want to talk about it for a little while. This is what I was thinking: certainly, everyone acknowledges that paintings, music, books, and even film can be great art. So why not a 10-minute episode of an animated television series? In his interesting book Planet Simpson, cultural critic Chris Turner describes how he considers The Simpsons at its peak to be the equal of just about any comedy produced in the 20th century. So, I figured, why not Ren & Stimpy? I feel like I could watch this episode again and again without any decline in enjoyment. It does so much in a medium that is expected (by idiots) to do nothing more than keep kids distracted, one half-hour and fuzzy animal at a time. Ren & Stimpy has the fuzzy animals, but everything after that obliterates expectations: the chihuahua Ren is, as I was saying to Ashley, as neurotic as Porky Pig and as sociopathic as Daffy Duck.
(Chuck Jones cartoons are, in fact, one of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi‘s great influences; others include Tex Avery, the Three Stooges, and Kirk Douglas – this makes more sense when you consider Ren’s breakdowns in light of Douglas’s acting style. It’s a peculiar quirk of pop culture that should lead this great but often scenery-chewing actor to have such a hold on Kricfalusi, who probably grew up seeing his movies in the ’50s and ’60s.)
Ren is a compellingly irrational, violent character, usually on the brink of madness, as likely to give Stimpy a kiss as a smack across the face. Ren has some deep emotional problems, especially for a dog in a “children’s cartoon.” He’s also hilarious. I just love the writing for this show; it’s always so right on. The non sequiturs don’t seem forced or unoriginal, but often have a strange power of their own. Consider: “I’ve had this ice cream bar since I was a child!” This bizarre dialogue inserts vague hints of pseudo-Freudian trauma into Ren’s disturbing madness. This episode really is the blackest of comedy – it’s funny, yeah, but it jokes about a horrifyingly rendered descent into insanity, as well as the erasure of all existence. It’s simultaneously very scary and very funny.
Then we’ve got Stimpy – innocent, trusting, and voiced by Billy West who I’m sure you know as Fry in Futurama. Stimpy is the Curly to Ren’s Moe, the Elmer Fudd to his Bugs (if Bugs were more deranged and less self-aware). While Ren upsets every single fucking paradigm in the cartoon – both the fuzzy animal imagery and the space opera setting – Stimpy buys in completely. He’s the unsuspecting dupe (although he often casually reveals that he suspects everything). I just love how this cartoon undermines everything. Looking for animals bonking each other on the head? Yeah, you’ve got it. Except that the violence is the product of an often sad, even abusive relationship. The interpersonal dynamic here is completely unexpected – maybe I’d compare it to Laurel & Hardy, but with a darker, meaner edge. On the other hand, “Space Madness” also subverts its sci-fi setting: we get superficial suggestions of exploring the cosmos, but during the course of the episode, the cosmos only form a surreal backdrop to Ren’s declining mental state, a space to get lost in. Instead of finding a menagerie of extraterrestrial life, they find themselves crushed by the depressing emptiness of it all. It’s like Treasure of the Sierra Madre in space. The depths of the universe turn out to be just as boring and ennui-ridden as anything Ren and Stimpy encounter here on earth.
And if you want existential crises, we’ve got the scarcely believable final segment, in which Ren puts Stimpy (to distract him) in charge of the “History Eraser Button,” whose only purpose is to compel Stimpy to press it (with some prodding from a not-exactly-objective narrator, of course). It’s Pandora’s Box all over again, but instead of releasing evils into the world, it erases all of history. And Stimpy presses it. There’s no happy ending or rational resolution. No positive outcome of any kind. In 90 seconds the cartoon goes from Sisyphean futility to hopeless annihilation. The last words are “Tune in next week as…” and then, well, everyone disappears. Including the pictures of Ren and Stimpy in the show’s logo. It’s a total reversal of the typical serial (space opera or otherwise), since now there is no next week, and never will be. Everything has been undone with the press of a single button. It’s startlingly grim, and I think it’s probably a major reason why I think this cartoon is so great. I think the ending’s absurd bleakness is comparable maybe to Dr. Strangelove, but few “funny” works of fiction dare to go down the path of ultimate destruction. Maybe there’s comedy in the ending’s sheer audacity and in its upsetting of the standard “last minute rescue” we’ve come to expect, but mainly I think it just leaves a funny feeling, an emotional void. What happened? Why did it happen? Is all of history even erased? Hell, this may just be a fictional universe (with pretty anarchic sensibilities to begin with), but nonetheless, the prospect of history being erased – and in a universe into which we’ve invested part of ourselves by enjoying the show – is pretty daunting.
I could probably go on like this for quite some time, but it is half past 4 am on a Saturday morning (which, in my opinion, is a great time to watch “Space Madness”). I could discuss the cartoon’s unique visual style, with regard to the grotesque close-ups, the spaceship (which seems to be a Rube Goldbergian hodgepodge of gizmos and thingamajigs), and space itself. The more I think about and watch “Space Madness,” the more I love it. It reveals new artistry and ideas with every viewing.
“The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.” – Salvador Dalí
“It is not I who am crazy! It is I who am mad!” – Ren Höek