Monthly Archives: December 2010

Suicide and Irony in The Royal Tenenbaums

Sorry to start out on a depressing note, but this is my favorite image from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Maybe it’s because I have a morbid love of well-shot (if gruesome) suicide scenes. Maybe it’s how, despite the messiness of the blood, hair, shaving cream, and water, Anderson still makes the shot symmetrical and picturesque. Maybe it’s the very evocative contrast of red and blue. Maybe it’s partially the lingering association of this shot with Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” which plays over it. Or maybe it’s because this is one of the rare scenes where Anderson lets us fully see the pain festering in his characters’ souls, stripped (almost) of any irony, leaving behind only aching, naïve sincerity.

Comedy and tragedy have a strange, alchemical relationship to one another in The Royal Tenenbaums. Even though the film centers on the painful, long-lasting alienation of a father from his children, Anderson maintains his ironic distance through the scrupulously composed frames, the tastefully stylized color scheme, and the undercurrent of dark humor always waiting to emerge. In the midst of the suicide scene, the soundtrack goes silent for seven seconds as the neurologically impaired Dudley, a gawky teenager in oversized glasses, opens the bathroom door and discovers Richie’s bloody body. Just as Dudley is about to scream, “Needle in the Hay” resumes and we cut to:

It’s not an overtly humorous image, but traces of that dark humor are scattered about. I’m talking about the snappy visual and audio editing; the precise symmetry—right down to the bloodstains!—in what should be a frantic, disordered scene; the rhythmic coordination between the medical team’s flight down the hallway and Smith’s guitar; and most importantly, the dead serious look on Bill Murray’s bearded face. From Rushmore on, Anderson has demonstrated an acute understanding of Murray’s pop-cultural significance and mastery of deadpan humor. His performance as the cuckolded Raleigh St. Clair springs from these attributes, and so even an action as grave as pushing his dying brother-in-law through a hospital is tinged with comedy.

I don’t mean to say that Anderson doesn’t take Richie’s attempted suicide seriously or sympathize with his emotional pain. It’s just that our experience of that pain is always mediated by the film’s thick, pervasive style. As indicated by the film’s intergenerational subject matter and narrative segmentation (complete with ornate chapter headings and Alec Baldwin narration), The Royal Tenenbaums is intended to have the scope and detail of a novel, but informed by the literary eccentricities of Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson. Perhaps this helps account for the film’s tone, which is best embodied by Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow), Raleigh’s wife and Richie’s sister. Her face expresses stolid indifference for a majority of the film, only occasionally cracking into a smile.

Or maybe the key to the film’s tone is really patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman), the smooth-talking, washed-up ex-lawyer who waltzes back into his wife and children’s lives after being kicked out of his hotel room. He seems, on some level, to grasp the irreparable damage that his self-absorption has caused Richie, Margot, and their brother Chas (Ben Stiller), but he’s still unable (or unwilling) to change, feigning cancer to gain their forgiveness. To Royal, it’s all a big game that can be won through the right maneuvers, and to some extent the film sides with him. Royal is more childish than the children he hurt, and Anderson cherishes this wide-eyed childishness, even in adults who should know better.

Referring to his now-ex-wife’s fiancé Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Royal observes, “He’s everything that I’m not.” It’s true: he’s conscientious, responsible, and mature. The Royal Tenenbaums is about immaturity, and this manifests itself throughout the style and narrative. The Tenenbaum kids are unable to face trauma head-on and develop elaborate coping methods, regressing back to their time as child prodigies. With his perfectly symmetrical frames and fetishistic attention to background detail, Anderson is also regressing, trying to preserve childhood in an icy stasis. He’s less like J.D. Salinger, and more like Holden Caulfield himself. Having said all of this, I confess: I really love The Royal Tenenbaums, exactly because of everything I’ve cited. On the surface it balances empathy with irony, but underneath it shares a gnawing yen for innocence with Anderson’s heroes Satyajit Ray, Hal Ashby, and François Truffaut.

This brings me back to Richie’s attempted suicide and “Needle in the Hay.” (The biographical resonances with Elliott Smith and his suicide apply here too.) It’s such a shocking moment, arriving in the middle of a film that appears harmlessly quirky despite being about infidelity and familial discord. Although it’s presented in a style nearly identical to that of every other scene, and therefore isn’t really much of a departure, the gravity of Richie’s act eradicates any viewer expectations about the rest of the movie. It’s a brilliant, poignant narrative curveball that jump-starts the film’s momentum.

And it results in the image I started with, which so effectively encapsulates the film’s dual preoccupations of emotional dysfunction and formal harmony. It reveals a new side of Richie’s character with unexpected, uncomfortable openness. In short, it tests the limits of Wes Anderson’s art, and what new developments his vision can accommodate. Beyond all this, it’s one of those movie scenes that has burrowed itself permanently in my head: the split-second glimpses of Margot and Mordecai the falcon; the shaving cream on Richie’s face; and, finally, the blood streaming from his wrists. It sticks with me.


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Selling Out on the Street of Shame

Over at Shadowplay, David Cairns’ The Late Show – a blogathon devoted to directors’ late and last movies – rages on. Since I contributed to it on Sunday with a post about Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), I’d like to travel back half a century and halfway around to the world, to postwar Japan. While the legislature debates banning their trade, a group of prostitutes working side by side must fight both poverty and the stigma attached to their profession in Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame (1956) or Akasen chitai – more accurately translated, according to the Eclipse DVD case, as the nonjudgmental “Red Light District.”

Released just months before Mizoguchi’s tragically early death from leukemia, Street of Shame is a fitting capstone to a career spent chronicling the abuses suffered and sacrifices made by Japanese women. Although it might not reach the aesthetic heights of such incomparable masterpieces as Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), it still contains all the marks of Mizoguchi at his prime: deep focus photography (by Kazuo Miyagawa) used for visually dense storytelling; the evocation of extreme pathos coupled with a flickering hope for future happiness; and richly drawn female characters, both good and evil.

In less than 90 minutes, Mizoguchi juxtaposes the stories of five women working at Dreamland, a brothel in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara pleasure district. Each has her own attitudes toward her job, and motivations for taking it, but they all have one thing in common: an uphill battle. They’re oppressed enough as women, but as sex workers, they’re directly told, “You’re merchandise.” Socially marginalized beyond the point of visibility, and with the government threatening to cut off their only source of income, they have to take desperate measures just to survive. Poor Yorie (Hiroko Machida) gets married, thinking of it as an escape, but returns when her husband turns out to be as dictatorial as any pimp.

Yume (Ayako Wakao), meanwhile, tries to keep her son from seeing her at work; his shame later leads to a confrontation where he renounces her as a mother. Mizoguchi doesn’t sugar-coat anything, nor does he exaggerate the extent of his characters’ miseries. He just honestly shows every one of the pressures converging on these women as they’re simultaneously exploited by their managers and customers, and rejected by their families in their hours of need. But, in the midst of all of this grim realism, he finds a possible silver lining – the tight-knit community formed by the women, for better or worse.

When their ties with the outside world are cut and the future promises nothing but self-commodification and inescapable debt, at the very least the women still have each other. Like the cast of Pedro Almodóvar’s comparable Volver (2004), the women don’t always support or even like each other, but the basis of their relationships are shared experiences; they each have the same understanding of what it’s like to be coerced into selling yourself. This works both ways, though, as the sly, enterprising Yasumi (Aiko Mimasu) lends out money to her impoverished sisters and makes a killing in interest, earning herself the nickname “Lady Shylock.”

Yasumi’s story is the most telling of the five, since at the end of the film, she’s the only one who successfully leaves the black hole that is the brothel. Her escape, however, comes only through her readiness to play the femme fatale, extorting and betraying those around her when necessary. She knows better than anyone the value of a yen, and she’s bitterly justified in her callous actions. She’s no more “evil” than Ugetsu‘s Lady Wakasa, willing to sacrifice those around her for the sake of self-preservation. Yasumi’s story arc reveals the cruel flip side to Mizoguchi’s vision of female camaraderie.

And speaking of Lady Wakasa, Machiko Kyo reappears here as the brassy young Michiko, who takes on the Americanized name “Mickey” (like the mouse). She’s introduced wearing a flashy, low-cut dress, dancing around in a giant shell à la The Birth of Venus. If Street of Shame‘s women were the seven samurai, Mickey would be Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune): the spunky, frivolous newcomer who doesn’t yet understand the group’s complex dynamics. She initially showcases her sexual allure and seduces away the other women’s customers, but over the course of the film, the routine grinds her down and her vulnerabilities start to show. By the final minutes of the film, she’s an old hand who readily shows the ropes to a shy teenage neophyte.

Thus, Street of Shame (and Mizoguchi’s career) concludes with a disturbing reminder that all this sacrifice and oppression is cyclical. Not only that, but unsolvable, unless economic opportunities and the treatment of women improve. It’s a far cry from the grand, all-for-love melodrama that ended his pre-war masterpiece Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939). The new prostitute hesitantly tries to attract potential customers wandering through Yoshiwara, calling out quietly as she retreats behind a wall. With that lingering image, Mizoguchi’s thirty-plus years of filmmaking fade into open-ended darkness.

What do you think of Mizoguchi, or his representations of women’s suffering? Any and all comments welcome.

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One Hour Mark: Mon Oncle

This is an image from 1:00:00 into Jacques Tati’s playful, faultlessly composed Mon Oncle (1958). It’s a kind-hearted comedy set in a Parisian suburb where modern homes coexist with ramshackle tenements, and where the hopelessly unfashionable Monsieur Hulot (Tati) must get along with his sister’s ultra-bourgeois family. Hulot may be the main character, but he’s not the film’s real focus; unlike, say, Chaplin’s comedies, Mon Oncle has no interest in extracting pathos through close-ups. Instead, Tati patiently observes Hulot’s environs – especially his sister’s gray, gadget-filled house of the future – and constructs subtle jokes along the margins of the frame. Through these wide shots, Tati invites the viewer into his colorful, unpredictable, and very funny world.

All of these traits and techniques are on display in the image above. That well-dressed little boy is Gérard Arpel, Hulot’s nephew and the “mon” of the film’s title. He’s been forced into a suit and tie so as to look refined for his mother’s garden party, but he has no intention of playing the part. He’s peering out into the street and whistling at an approaching guest; moments later, the guest (distracted by the whistling) bangs into a streetlamp. It’s a perfectly timed, childish joke – one that’s reprised at the end of the movie – and its punchline isn’t even explicitly shown, but rather manifested through the wiggle of the streetlamp and a loud “BANG” on the soundtrack.

Whereas many comedy directors feel compelled to hammer home the point of every joke, Tati gets more done by sparingly applying a few precise tools (i.e., a wide shot, judicious editing, sound effects). He takes his comedy seriously, and takes a similarly subtle approach to characterization. Tati shies away from psychologically profiling his characters, preferring to develop relationships and attitudes visually. (The content of the dialogue is almost irrelevant in his films, especially Playtime [1967].) For example, we get the sense that Gérard gravitates toward his bumbling uncle because he’s so alienated by his family’s pretentious, repressive lifestyle. He never says this (I mean, he’s 9), but it’s clear through his actions and the way he’s filmed relative to his parents and the house itself.

Just look at the image above: Gérard, the petite, curious troublemaker, stands in stark contrast to the flat, monolithic barrier in front of him. He’s creeping around its edges and peeking through its slats, counteracting the fence’s primary function, which is to separate the Arpel household from the outside world. Gérard, by virtue of being an energetic kid, can’t and won’t be fit into his family’s narrow constraints, whether social or architectural; this aligns him with his uncle, even if Hulot’s unsuitability for bourgeois life is more a matter of clumsiness than rebellion. Both characters contribute to the film’s overall critique of technological modernity, and I think Tati sympathizes with Gérard’s youthful mischief as well as his alter ego’s frustrations in the Arpels’ cutting-edge household.

This gets at one of Tati’s greatest strengths. Even though Mon Oncle is a gentle, deliberately paced study of a small-town community – with an eye for the absurdities of everyday life – it’s still an ideologically potent (and sharply insightful) film in ways that flow organically from the comedy. The contrast with Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) – a film I absolutely adore, which also exploits the comic properties of antagonistic machinery – grows more relevant here, because Chaplin inserts his political message directly into his Tramp’s melodramatic struggle. Tati, meanwhile, expresses it through the ironies and rhythms of day-to-day life. He doesn’t use a single language, but speaks through the sights and sounds of the sensory world.

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Eric Rohmer and Love’s Madness

This is my contribution to The Late Show, a blogathon being held by David Cairns of Shadowplay. The premise is simple: it’s the end of the year, so let’s write about the ends of filmmakers’ careers. Thus, I have for you a true swan song: the late Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), a film about love, loyalty, beauty, youth, and all the other themes that preoccupied Rohmer across his half-century film career. It’s also extraordinarily beautiful in a way that recalls Rohmer’s many collaborations with cinematographer Néstor Almendros, like Love in the Afternoon (1972) or Claire’s Knee (1970, my favorite). It’s also, quite simply, a charming and lovable movie.

“Love is mad,” says Celadon. This film is about just that: love’s madness and its many forms. Based loosely on a 17th century novel set in 5th century Gaul, Astrea and Celadon traces the path taken by the titular shepherdess and shepherd, each of whom is intractably smitten with the other, as they’re separated and must fight to be rejoined. Their trials all start because Celadon – per his parents’ commands – must pretend to be in love with another shepherdess; Astrea thinks this charade is real, and doubts Celadon’s fidelity. To prove his love, he throws himself into the river, only for his body to be discovered by a trio of castle-dwelling nymphs, one of whom is lovelorn.

From here, they must overcome one obstacle after another. Finding no body, Astrea thinks Celadon is dead – a belief that persists until the film’s final moments. Celadon, however, cannot reveal the truth to her, because of her last, spiteful order that he stay away. So one misunderstanding leads to another as the two mixed-up lovers puzzle out the shifting rules that guide human relationships and wander across the blooming Gallic countryside. Meanwhile, through its peripheral characters, the film makes detours into religious rites, divinity, and the differences between pure and impure love. As always, Rohmer – a Renaissance man, like other members of the French New Wave – has a lot on his mind, and he’s not afraid to explore it through dense, meandering conversations.

Unlike a lot of last films, this is a swan song worthy of its director’s oeuvre. It’s just as delicate and understated as any of his work, and is bursting with intellectual inquiry and creative energy; despite being 87 when he made it, Rohmer had lost none of his artistic spark, nor his ability to sympathetically portray impulsive, lovestruck youth. Like his Six Moral Tales, Astrea and Celadon is about desires and choices, lies and truths. Like those films, it confronts its characters’ romantic decisions and their consequences. During one erotically charged sequence, for example, Celadon stumbles upon Astrea, his lost love, sleeping blindfolded in the woods. Slowly, fearfully, he bends over her and, just as their lips are about to touch, she wakes up. He runs away, but she catches a glimpse of him and believes she has seen the dead Celadon’s soul.

The stakes of this scene are high, but entirely intangible. No one’s going to die, and no war is going to be lost. But Celadon, if caught, will break an immutable contract between him and the girl he loves, and that matters as much as anything. Through nuanced characterization and slightly tricky plotting, Rohmer can set up tiny, even imperceptible actions as the objects of great importance. Love, as Celadon says, is mad; it’s irrational and self-contradictory. Rohmer’s lovers grow closer and closer, but must stay apart for reasons they don’t fully understand.

Toward the end of the film, a helpful druid organizes one last charade: Celadon, with his feminine features, will pose as his daughter Alexia. Thus disguised, he spends day and night with Astrea, who suspects nothing but feels an instant rapport with her new acquaintance. Through this duplicity, they are able to know each other anew – and Rohmer can also engage the complexities of gender relations. He doesn’t treat the cross-dressing frivolously, but as a new way for the lovers to find and understand each other, and through this, the film’s last few seconds (the last few seconds of Rohmer’s whole career) are profoundly satisfying.

Celadon’s transgressions of gender norms are not forgotten, but folded into the happy ending. Astrea finally sees the girl she’s been kissing as the male love she presumed dead, and everything shifts into place. It’s a “God’s in his heaven / All’s right with his world” moment, and in true Rohmer form, it’s fully realized just as the credits begin to roll. There’s no fanfare or swelling music, but the ending’s impact still penetrated my emotions. That’s the magic of Eric Rohmer at work. He makes no concessions to Hollywood-bred clichés or received wisdom about how to film romance, but nonetheless makes love stories like no others.

And make no mistake: Astrea and Celadon is a strikingly, rapturously beautiful movie. Shot on location in rural France by Diane Baratier, it feels authentically like a Renaissance understanding of ancient Gaul, with little on the soundtrack but birdsong, footsteps, and human voices as its characters trek through miles of sunlit greenery. (The cast members, as well, universally match their surroundings’ beauty.) It’s as pastoral as a movie can be, filmed so gently and sweetly that it plays like a visual sonnet cycle. Once you enter this world, you don’t want to leave. You just want to hand yourself over to Rohmer, and sink into his idyllic vision of the world. He may be gone now, but at least he left so many films behind to comfort us.

Addendum: for what it’s worth, there’s no consensus on the title of this film – i.e., whether there’s a “The” at the beginning, or whether it’s “Astree” or “Astrea” – so I just went with the title on the DVD case.

And so, what about you? Are you intrigued by Rohmer’s vision of love and loss? Have you dipped into earlier areas of his filmography? All comments are welcome.

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Silence, Swoon, and same-sex kisses

In Josef von Sternberg’s early, great film The Docks of New York (1928), Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) is a stoker indentured aboard a steamship gets one night at port. In that night, he saves the life of an ex-prostitute named Mae (Betty Compson), takes her to a saloon, chats her up, and eventually they mutually agree to get married. A reluctant minister is called in, all the barflies join in the celebration, and Lou (Olga Baclanova) – an old friend of Mae’s who happens to be the girlfriend of Bill’s boss – gets all sentimental and gives Mae the kiss seen above.

Baclanova, best known as the soon-to-be-mutilated femme fatale in Tod Browning’s Freaks, oozes continental sex appeal (enhanced by the silence) alongside the warmed-over desperation and loneliness she shares with the rest of the cast. In that spontaneous kiss, she follows the credo of silent cinema at its best: actions speak louder than words. No title card about sisterhood, solidarity, or wistfulness could communicate as effectively as that moment of physical contact; it says, “I’ll miss you,” and so much more. The Docks of New York is a bittersweet portrait of drifting people (literally, as they live and try to die in the water) told through gestures, actions, flesh, and smoke. In this, it anticipates the rest of von Sternberg’s beautiful career.

I’ll share one more moment I found particularly striking: while chatting with Mae, the stoker unveils a very Pre-Code tattoo along his arm. Like I said, von Sternberg writes his story through the flesh of his characters. I saw The Docks of New York courtesy of Criterion’s recent “3 Silent Classics” release, which also includes The Last Command and Underworld; it even prompted an essay by Guy Maddin, which is always worth reading/celebrating. Thank you, Criterion, to exposing me to these shimmering, silent delights.

Over 60 years later, here’s another same-sex kiss. Instead of preceding a wedding, this one follows a murder. That’s because these two young men are Nathan Leopold (Craig Chester) and Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet), the refined Chicagoan anti-heroes of Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), and they’ve just killed Bobby Franks and disposed of his body. Just like Brandon and Phillip in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) – a film more loosely based on the Leopold & Loeb case – the violent act has brought them closer, inextricably binding their fates together as one. So naturally they share a few minutes of erotic reverie before cleaning up and leaving the swamp where they’ve left the body.

Swoon mixes the sensational “true crime” subgenre with the kinds of low-budget experimentation that were hallmarks of the New Queer Cinema in the early ’90s. I was frequently reminded, for example, of Todd Haynes’ Poison (1990), with its creative anachronisms and genre commentary, as well as Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994), with its black-and-white cinematography and symbolic interludes. (Kalin has collaborated with Haynes and was an executive producer on Go Fish.) Swoon closely follows the actual chronology of the case, from the conception of the murder in 1923 to the donation of Leopold’s eyes after his 1971 death, but it’s interspersed with interior monologues, stock footage, dramatic reenactments, wet dreams, and even footage of amateur bird-watching.

Like Haynes’ work, Swoon sometimes reads as painfully pretentious, especially when Kalin’s ambitious, Cocteau-like conceits are undermined by the occasionally shoddy acting. But it’s nonetheless a compelling document of two different eras: first the sexually stultifying but decadent atmosphere of 1920s Chicago that helped breed the couple’s homicidal folie à deux, and then the renewed cultural freedom of the ’90s that let a new side to their story be told. Although Kalin’s visual storytelling may not be as rich and evocative as von Sternberg’s (after all, whose could?), it bespeaks a great erotic curiosity and openness, entangled with a predilection toward smugness and violence.

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Link Dump: #14

Since Ashley insisted that I couldn’t choose kitty pictures anymore, the above image of Scar and the obnoxiously playful Simba is her pick. And a great pick it is! Scar is a deliciously, mincingly evil villain, probably more charismatic than Claudius, the Shakespearean usurper on whom he’s based. And of course that’s all because of Jeremy Irons, whose voice trumps any hackneyed dialogue or fickle hyenas. When cartoon Jeremy Irons says “Jump!”, you ask, “How high?” With that, I give you this week’s links.

  • Courtesy of Mary Ray of The Bewitched, I found out about this awesome 4th Amendment apparel – for when you want to stick it to the (TSA) man in writing.
  • Amanda Palmer’s vulva is NSFW art!
  • Here’s another awesome Tumblr blog called Screen Goddesses.
  • Apparently all (or at least most) of the planets have been featured in sci-fi literature. The more you know!
  • Robert C. Cumbow wrote an essay about one of Hitchcock’s greatest, Vertigo (1958). Give it a read; it’s very sharp.
  • From The Sheila Variations, here’s a piece about Ann Savage in Detour, easily one of the greatest femmes fatales ever.
  • Imogen Smith wrote a long, fantastic essay about Pre-Code movies, complete with Joan Blondell in a bathtub.
  • Dan Callahan attacked the “Rich Girl Cinema” of Sofia Coppola and Lena Dunham in Slant; then Cinetrix fired back by saying, “I enjoy being a girl.”
  • An inventive YouTube user mashed up Edgar Wright’s first three films into one awesome trailer. How can one director pack in that much pure awesome?
  • As part of the drive to raise Vincent Price awareness, a really cool blogger & graphic designer named Eric Slager made this snazzy poster of Price’s face adorned with the titles of his many films. (Via
  • Sight & Sound announces its critical favorites for 2010! Unsurprisingly, The Social Network and Uncle Boonmee top the list. (Pssst: I’ll have some 2010 film lists of my own in the near future.)

Alas, we’ve had no astoundingly bizarre search terms as of late (unless you count more requests for Simpsons porn). Someone searched for “tom waits poster,” for which Ashley recommends this. (Tom Waits is lovably grizzled and makes excellent poster fodder.) Another searched for “witch burning in movies,” for which I offer the spellbinding, terrifying witch-burning sequence in the middle of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1958). And finally, “hanged cat film.” That’s no good. In keeping with our feline blog name, we’re launching a campaign against cat violence here. Seriously, people: end the kitty bloodshed. Meow.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Bart’s Comet

[Perfectly Cromulent Analysis is a series in which I comprehensively analyze especially memorable Simpsons episodes. To see the rest, look here.]

Starting with a simple schoolyard prank and building its way up to a powerful climax wherein the citizens of Springfield sing together in solidarity, “Bart’s Comet” is an example of the Simpsons‘ staff at their very best. In just over 20 minutes, they cram in a full disaster movie’s worth of plot paired with endlessly biting political satire, plus a number of character-building moments and subtle but hilarious gags. It’s well-written to a tee, both in its broader structure (every moment adds to the plot) and in its little snippets of dialogue. Tucked into the corners of this episode are fantastic lines and savage gibes, universally well-delivered by the voice actors.

In short, it’s a great episode. But why just utter praise? Let’s delve into what makes “Bart’s Comet” such an unremitting masterwork, one of the most brilliant pieces of animated satire ever created. It all starts as poor, beleaguered Principal Seymour Skinner is attempting to instill his pupils with a love of science by launching a weather balloon. Little does he know that his actions will inadvertently lead an angry mob to burn down the Springfield observatory. It’s just one glimmering irony out of the dozens overflowing from this bountiful episode, and naturally – since it’s a brutal irony in Skinner’s sad provincial life – it comes courtesy of Bart Simpson.

As revenge for Bart’s sabotaging of the balloon (adding a mock-up of Skinner’s face and the words “Hi, I’m Big Butt Skinner”), Skinner forces him to wake up at 4am and assist in Skinner’s amateur astronomy. Amidst scenes full of dead-on observational humor, both about the perils of waking up before sunrise and the tedium of the scientific method, Bart does assist him – only to sabotage him yet again by accidentally discovering a comet. This results in one of my favorite Skinner movements, as he cries “NO!” three times in succession – his inarticulate equivalent of “Curses, foiled again!”

Thus, with the discovery of the comet and the transition to Act 2, the episode’s plot begins in earnest. No more Skinner/Bart hijinks, as amusing as those are; now, events shift to a broader city-wide platform, as Bart and the nerdy Super Friends alert the proper authorities that the comet is headed straight for Springfield. The “doomsday whistle,” as Grandpa calls it, is used to instigate a town meeting, and during that meeting we learn what the episode is really about: it’s an inquiry into whether the people of Springfield have “grace under pressure,” to quote Ernest Hemingway. The answer is an unambiguous “no,” but it’s delivered probably the funniest, most intelligent way possible over the following 10 minutes.

As if to complement Skinner’s schoolboyish enthusiasm, the episode is not just about the town’s instant panic (“Quit stalling! What’s the plan?!”), but also about how science, as the abstract pursuit of knowledge, tries to coexist or interact with more tangible political realities, often (as here) with disastrous results. To that end, we’ve got Professor Frink, go-to brainiac, who offers what looks like a miracle solution, conceived of by himself in tandem with old government/military officials: just send a rocket to blow up “Mr. Comet.” The frazzled populace is instantly relieved, especially Homer, who compares the crisis to “that rainforest scare,” which he assumes has been fully resolved.

Just as in “Marge vs. the Monorail,” Homer is the very model of political apathy and complacency, relinquishing all civic decision making to anyone who isn’t him. (Or per “Trash of the Titans”: “Can’t somebody else do it?”) He has complete faith that the people in charge will make the right choices to keep him and his family safe – even after he’s seen Quimby mispronounce the city’s name. He comes up with a half-assed escape plan that he can barely describe because he’s so easily distracted, and even when all hope seems last, he carries on with naïve optimism, assuming that the comet will probably burn up. I like how the episode revolves gently around Homer, who accidentally saves the day with his self-imposed blindness and layered hypocrisies.

When the rocket fails and the only bridge out of town is destroyed, “Bart’s Comet” takes on a decidedly apocalyptic tone. But even within this atmosphere of suspense and desperation, the episode still finds time for one little joke after another. It’s black comedy at its finest, for example, when helicopter-riding newsman Arnie Pie watches one car after another try and fail to jump over Springfield Gorge, and describes it as “a silent testament to the never-give-up and never-think-things-out spirit of our citizens.” Or when Congress’s bureaucratic loopholes make an emergency evacuation bill fail, prompting Kent Brockman to remark that “democracy simply doesn’t work.”

Under pressure, it appears, all of Springfield – including political, media, and religious authorities – abandon their logic or values, and turn to pure hysteria. The final showdown, when the townsfolk must prove who they really are, comes when Homer leads his family into Flanders’ bomb “shelterini.” After a brief non-confrontation, Ned lets everyone else in, from Moe to Otto to Krusty to over a dozen of the show’s other peripheral characters. Then, shoved together in the tiny space so that they form a ridiculous human collage, they must kick out one person so the door can remain fully close. And, of course, Homer is selfish to the last and insists that it be Flanders, even as he murmurs, “I’m terribly sorry!” to Flanders’ wife and children.

This climax really exemplifies what’s so great about this episode: it’s visually absurd but gets at some very deep truths. It’s a set of jokes that flows organically from the plot and characters while satirizing the self-serving tendencies people employ in moments of crisis. Flanders may be an effeminate, boring fundamentalist and a frequent (deserving) target of the show’s humor, but he’s still willing to sacrifice himself when the others cling to life. The townsfolk engage in a hilarious “barnyard noise guessing game” to distract themselves from their questionably ethical decision, but Homer suddenly becomes their conscience and reprimands them all before joining Flanders.

This leads to the episode’s incredible resolution, which is a feat of versatile, economical writing yoked together with gorgeous animation and skilled voice acting. Everyone follows Homer out of the shelter, and they join Flanders in a rousing chorus of “Que Sera, Sera,” as they sing, “What will be, will be.” It’s a serene, heartwarming moment; it says that while they may be panicky, ignorant, and self-interested, the people of Springfield are still good at heart. Or, at the very least, that they’re willing to face death as a single unit, with all boundaries erased – which has to count for something. It’s the usual Simpsons trick of hiding the sweet in the sour, and vice versa.

Then, with dizzying speed, the ending arrives: the comet tears into the atmosphere and burns up into a rock “no bigger than a chihuahua’s head,” just as Homer said. Between the comet burning up and the end of the episode – that’s less than a minute of screen time – we get countless layers of dense irony thrown at us (let’s count!): 1) the comet destroys the weather balloon that started all this in the first place; 2) it destroys the bomb shelter, meaning that anyone still inside would’ve been killed; 3) Patty and Selma remark on “the preciousness of life” as they take a drag on their cigarettes; 4) Moe leads a mob to go burn down the observatory “so this will never happen again”; 5) Lisa realizes that the air pollution she’s opposed saved the city; and 6) the kids realize that Homer, somehow, was right.

What a denouement! It not only wraps up every single plot point, but also uses its conclusions to mock the shallowness and short-sightedness of its characters; it then tilts the balance at the very last moment by positioning Homer’s correct prediction as a source of renewed anxiety. The comet has burned up, the threat is gone, and we’re back to the status quo… but that status quo is built on forgetting any of the valuable lessons from the recent crisis, or else brutally misapplying them. Scientists move carefully and learn from their mistakes. The people (in the sense of “we the people”) do not. “Bart’s Comet” gets across this and other satirical points with uncompromising swiftness and an extraordinary range of emotion. And to put the cherry on top, it ends on a note of quavering fear. Genius.

Just for fun, here are a few of my absolute favorite moments from “Bart’s Comet”:

  • Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney pelting Skinner’s car with rocks.
  • “You get all the fun of sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention… science has it all.”
  • “Warren, we’ve talked about you hogging the eyepiece.”
  • Moe: “Oh, dear God, no!”
  • Todd weeping as he loads the rifle.
  • “It was a baby ox!”

What are your feelings on “Bart’s Comet”? Please share in the comment box below!


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