So, at last, it’s 2010 (the year we make contact). I’m back in Northfield, classes have started again, but I still hope to find time to post every now and then. And in this, my first post of this new year/decade, I will turn my view forward, toward the future (“…for that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives“). That’s right: spurred on by Ashley’s recent discussion of Nina Paley’s “Thank You for Not Breeding,” I want to talk about the near-certain doom that awaits mankind and this planet before too long!
For a long time, I’ve been pretty fascinated by ecological catastrophes, the relationship between man and nature, and the many ways the one can fuck up the other. My first memories of the phrase “global warming” comes from a lame joke, learned either from Laffy Taffy or a classmate, sometime in elementary school:
Q: What would worms cause if they took over the world?
A: Global worming.
Soon thereafter came the five-legged frogs. I don’t remember the specifics of it, though a quick Internet search turns up many possible such stories; basically, the gist is that in the mid-’90s, mutant frogs were found across the midwest sporting an extra appendage. The culprit? Pollution, to which frogs are extra-sensitive (breathing through their skin and all, you know). Somehow this news story stuck in my mind. As a lifelong X-Men devotee, I was already familiar with the concept of mutation, and these poor frogs just solidified it as something real, dwelling quite literally in our backyards.
Around this time I also saw an episode of Captain Planet called “Planeteers Under Glass,” which Ashley and I recently revisited. The plot’s pretty typical for the show, involving a scientist’s attempts to run a virtual reality simulation of pollution’s effect on nature. The nefarious Dr. Blight traps her and the Planeteers in the simulation, Captain Planet himself intercedes, the day is won, etc. But the reason I remember it today is for its gruesome, Nightmare Fuel-laden visualization of the havoc wrought by industrialization.
You know what’s terrifying? Seeing all the careless damage and waste produced by a couple centuries of factories and smokestacks summed up into one slimy, bleak amalgam of statues and skyscrapers. Captain Planet may have been a very flawed show – OK, even a sucky show – but just this once it managed to parlay its eco-friendliness into some effective doomsday imagery. I’ve forgotten most of the show’s preachiness, and I can’t remember whether the motto “The power is yours!” belonged to its hero or to Smokey the Bear. But you know what I remember? That giant, scary effigy of destructive corporate greed!
While mulling over the topics of this post, I had a little realization: one of the perks of being a child in the ’90s was that environmentalism was no longer just a hobgoblin of wacky tree-huggers. (Granted, the first Earth Day was in 1970, but what can I say, I haven’t really done any research.) Instead, it was in the posters on our classroom walls, in our PSAs, even in our cartoons. Most weren’t as blunt as Captain Planet, but consider Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What made them “mutant”? The mysterious “ooze,” of course, a mutagenic pollutant released into the sewers of New York, which apparently also transmitted a craving for pizza. So even in the context of a straightforward, hyperactive Saturday morning cartoon, we see traces of this anti-pollution zeitgeist. (Also worth noting: Fern Gully was released in 1992.)
Another animated source of such nods to pollution and environmentalism as issues pervading the sociopolitical climate of the Clinton years is, naturally, The Simpsons. Tonight, Ashley and I watched “Marge vs. the Monorail” (season 4, episode 12) which even begins with an extended jab at corporate irresponsibility in the guise of the show’s many-layered plutocrat, Mr. Burns. Cramming barrels of toxic waste into a tree at a neighborhood park, Burns decries what he perceives as inefficiency: “The last tree held nine drums!” Meanwhile, a mutated squirrel frolics about with glowing, laser-emitting eyes.
I’m consistently astonished to see how much caustic satire The Simpsons at its prime could cram like toxic waste into 22 minutes. It’s even more impressive to think that as young children, we were laughing like idiots at it – even as the episode took on government corruption, the ignorance of the masses, and the sleazy con men who rip them off. And we learned about them all, satirically, through The Simpsons. For more evidence of the show’s subtle environmentalism, consider Blinky the three-eyed fish, another product of the power plant’s shoddy waste control, who I recall featuring prominently in advertising in the show’s early years.
It’s a testament to the show’s lasting genius that even in The Simpsons Movie, which devoted an hour and a half to an epic, environmentally-driven plot, the jokes just look stale and toothless compared to the most casual barb from episodes like “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish,” “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” or “The Old Man and the Lisa,” just to name a few of the times when the show probed our collective ecological nightmares. The fact was that the show had tread this territory already, only with far more venomous quips and more profound points to make.
So God bless The Simpsons for playing its own irreverent, invaluable part in bringing these issues to the cultural forefront. This goes right along with what I’ve long believed about getting ideas across in fiction: the sight of the ruined land that was once Springfield, devastated through Homer’s ignorance and incompetence, at the end of “Trash of the Titans” (season 9, episode 22) is so much more powerful on every level than having Captain Planet bark “The power is yours!” at you every day. The former serves as the ending to a wickedly funny and emotionally involving episode; the latter almost makes you want to pollute more, just to piss off that self-righteous Planet prick.
While I’m on the topic of animated satire laced with environmental messages, I’d like to pay tribute to a film that’s not seen nearly enough. I enjoy it immensely, but maybe that’s because it suits my sensibilities so well. I’m referring to Bruno Bozzetto’s uneven 1977 compilation film Allegro Non Troppo, a frequently witty series of vignettes set to classical music in the style of Fantasia. Except that Disney’s majesty and grandeur are here replaced with an earthy, lovably crude aesthetic, akin to the work of René Laloux, or Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python.
Aside from the free-for-all, rapid-fire bunch of cartoons that end the film, the stand-outs are undoubtedly the hauntingly tragic contemplation of war and death set to Jean Sibelius’s Valse Triste (i.e., “the sad kitty”), and the parody of Fantasia‘s Rite of Spring sequence set to Maurice Ravel’s Boléro. It’s this second piece I want to single out as relevant to the discussion at hand: it starts out beautiful, imaginative, and a little strange, progressing with Ravel’s martial rhythms through the ages until the marchers evolve into a panoply of wide-ranging creatures.
A primate starts quietly stalking some of the weaker fauna, but they march on, a little fazed by the artifacts they pass (pyramids, a cross, a tank), until at last they reach a barrier: the highway. Then, in a scene paralleling that horrible moment from Captain Planet, skyscrapers rip out of the earth, hurling the animals aside, only to be gazed down upon by a smiling colossus… whose head breaks off, revealing a devious monkey inside. It’s a comically pessimistic statement on man’s capacity for oblivious destruction.
So these are some of examples of how animated satire can (at least try to) make a difference in the broader discourse about how we treat the earth. I’d also add to that list the animated shorts included in “Thank You for Not Breeding”: “The Wit and Wisdom of Cancer,” “Goddess of Fertility,” and “The Stork,” all by Nina Paley. (She is an incredible woman, both in her animated work and her stances on art; expect to hear more about her in the coming weeks, and months.)
For whatever reason, I’ve always been attracted to these kinds of cartoons – the darker and more extreme, the better. I love people’s viewpoints, and I’m addicted to fear, so the further under my skin each vision of environmental apocalypse gets, the stronger my reaction. (These are some of the many reasons why Avatar‘s trivial, feel-good sparkliness didn’t work with me.) I’m terrified by what human beings have done and are doing to the planet we live on. And the fact that we can’t stop without giving up our current lifestyles. And that we won’t stop unless we want to, and we really don’t want to.
So what’s to become of us as a species, of earth as a living place teeming with endless biological diversity? What does the next decade hold in store for life in these parts? Will we wait until we’ve reduced this fertile land to a smoldering, treeless pile of ashes, poisoned the oceans, and hidden the sun behind a veil of smog? Then will we wring our hands, muttering to ourselves, “Hmm, we should do something about this before it gets out of control…”? Would you really be that surprised?
I’ll conclude with a brilliant little piece, the opening sequence to Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Its juxtapositions of cosmic iconography and surreal imagery really let it skewer modern man’s penchant for ignorance coupled with conformity. Also, it’s really fucking funny. And if the world’s slowly coming to an end, we’ll all need a laugh, right?