Tag Archives: government

Link Dump: #23

Gotta catch ’em all, Pokekitties. We don’t for sure whether that adorable feline has been manipulated in Photoshop or was actually painted from head to paw (which would be cruel), but either way it’s pretty much the cutest thing Ashley or I have ever seen. Like, OK, Pikachu was pretty cute, but a kitty made to look like Pikachu? Infinitely cuter. On that note, we have links, some of which involve KITTIES. (Oh, and isn’t it awesome that Ashley’s blogging again? You should all give her positive feedback so she writes more often!)

  • The Los Angeles Times has profiles of three of last year’s unrecognized supporting performers. I didn’t think too much of Eve Best in The King’s Speech, but I loved Barry Pepper in True Grit and, of course, Dale Dickey as the fearsome backwoods matriarch in Winter’s Bone.
  • Nothing says “Heaven knows I’m validated now” like Morrissey-themed fan comics.
  • Cynthia von Buhler, artist of all that is cute and weird, presents Cat Head Theatre, with KITTIES performing from Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet. (One of my favorite parts!)
  • This Great Gatsby NES game may be a little repetitive and, on the second level, ridiculously difficult, but it’s still very fun and rates highly on the retro novelty scale. Play away, old sport.
  • I will never get tired of those Jameson-sponsored 60-second movie reenactments. Especially when it means a claymation Exorcist and Eraserhead. The power of humorous Internet videos compels you!
  • Crackpot politicians: they’re everywhere! Even in the Minnesota State Legislature. Like Mike Beard, who… whew, just read about it.
  • As the seasons shift to spring, a new and beautiful blogathon arises! I just learned that Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck is hosting Raimifest, and I’ll very definitely be contributing. Maybe this’ll finally give me a chance to watch Spider-Man 2!
  • Want to get really, really pissed off and just generally angry? Then read this interview with Ohio-based artist Richard Whitehurst, creator of “THE RAPE TUNNEL.” His responses to the interviewer’s questions are like physical embodiments of the phrase “pretentious asshole.” He really sucks. [Comments below the interview suggest that it might be a hoax. Still, if someone really did say those things, they would be a horrible person.]
  • Masked Japanese monkey waiters?!!!
  • Paracinema asks the question on all of America’s mind: Is Ben Kingsley the new Donald Pleasence?
  • Finally, want to download a cute, free, new song and support super-independent musicians? Check out the Baby-Proof Bullets!

As far as search terms go, I always love a good Yakov Smirnoff joke, and “in soviet russia presents open you” works just fine. We got more gratuitous, bizarre violence with “girl stabbed in the neck” (hey, that’s what the graphic novel I wrote is about!), and more gratuitous, bizarre mentions of genitalia with “bela lugosi little cunt.” (I can’t even start to figure out that one.) And hey, just for good measure: “movie artist beheading axe mom and daughter.” Yeah. Huh.

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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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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Marge vs. the Monorail

We here at Pussy Goes Grrr are all about retcons. We’re OK with it if Greedo shot first, or if Iron Man’s origin was in the Gulf War, or whatever, as long as we can do it too. Therefore, I am retconning this series into a monthly series, and retroactively marking this as the May post. Comprehensively analyzing The Simpsons is, I think, a worthwhile task, but it’s also difficult and time-consuming. That said, it’s also uniquely rewarding. For example, it gives me an excuse to talk about The Simpsons for a long, long time once a month. I hope you enjoy it.

When I talked about the themes of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?“, one of them really stood out to me: the mob mentality in Springfield. Ever since then, I’ve observed mobs of all shapes and sizes everywhere in The Simpsons. In the show’s on-the-nail satire of ugly Americans, it depicts them in their natural environment, which happens to be as members of large, amorphous groups. The show also mercilessly criticizes ruthless individualism and hypocritical elitism, so it brilliantly plays both sides of the fence. All of this (and more) is at work in one of the best episodes ever, “Marge vs. the Monorail.”

It’s a testament to the show’s writers that this episode should be so effective. The premise feels so absurd, and indeed Wikipedia says that when Conan O’Brien originally pitched it, it was considered “a little crazy.” But the idea won out, and it became a showcase for some of the show’s sharpest social commentary. As with many of the best episodes, it’s so packed with allusions and quick gags with such a wide variety of targets that, in lesser hands, it might feel overcrowded. But it’s perfectly paced, none of the segments seem rushed, and it even has a slightly disturbing drama unfolding beneath the constant humor. This is virtuoso storytelling, and no convention is left without a little satirical twist.

The episode is so well-designed that it even starts with the cherry on top. This is, apropos of nothing, a 20-second parody of the Flintstones opening as Homer leaves work. It’s a brief preamble, recognizing the show’s debts to animated sitcoms of the 1960s while setting up Homer as a new type of TV father. Hell, if someone had never heard of Homer Simpson, this could be an introduction to the entire complex character. The plot then begins in earnest, as Carl and Lenny casually seal up vats of toxic waste at the nuclear power plant, which Mr. Burns and Smithers then dispose of at a local park. This section leads right into the main storyline, both causally and thematically; after all, it’s all about communal interest vs. personal greed. And Mr. Burns, of course, is personal greed incarnate.

So we get a mini-narrative about corporate corruption and disdain for the environment, and the episode’s barely getting warmed up. (I addressed this part of the episode in more depth in another post that was specifically about environmentalism in ’90s animation.) Mr. Burns’ $3 million fine for his “unbelievable contempt for human life” (which he pays with ease) goes to the city, necessitating a town meeting. These meetings are a relatively frequent part of life in Springfield, popping up whenever the town faces any kind of crisis; in general, as you may expect, the townspeople devolve into a mob, whether angry or otherwise. They’re opportunities to illustrate the divide between the government and the people, and they give a chance for each citizen’s own brand of ignorance to shine. “Marge vs. the Monorail” is no exception.

First, though, we’re treated to some wonderful fantasy sequences, as Lisa and Bart each share how they’d spend the money. These fantasies are especially great because they reflect the children’s personalities (Lisa’s bookishness, Bart’s desire for mayhem) while still maintaining a childlike yearning for the impossibly awesome – whether it’s eating who Genghis Khan eats, or controlling robotic ants. Both with the children here and later with the adults, the show pulls off a neat trick, as it represents the wishes and biases of individual characters both when contrasted with, and then integrated into, the teeming masses. A lot of deep questions are being raised about the individual’s role in popular decisions, and they’re raised in very funny ways.

Marge, often acknowledged as the town killjoy, is the voice of personal responsibility. Her plan for the money – to fix the potholes in Main Street – is an unexciting but obvious proposition that would greatly improve day-to-day life in Springfield. The mob even goes for it at first, following Abe Simpson’s confusingly sarcastic opposition. Then Lyle Lanley enters the picture. Lanley is one of the most memorable one-time characters in the show’s history, and it’s entirely because of Phil Hartman’s voice acting genius. Hartman voiced the supporting characters Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure on a regular basis, and although McClure was occasionally given room to grow, both were mostly (hilarious) one-note jokes – the sleazy lawyer and sleazy actor.

Lanley is something else altogether. Yes, he’s a sleazy con man, but he’s much more than that. He breathes contempt for small-town rubes, but it’s smeared over with greasy charisma, and a willingness to speak their simple-minded language. He has the element of surprise, and has no problem grabbing the town’s attention, especially since their civic leaders are so comparatively dull. Lanley brings razzle-dazzle to policymaking. Later, when Marge complains that the potholes will go unfixed, Homer remarks, “Well, you should’ve written a song like that guy.” Homer, an everyman, has the memory of a goldfish; he can’t even recall Lanley’s name, but he definitely remembers that he had a song.

And what a song! Of course, it’s a parody of “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man, but it’s not just a frivolous reference. It instantly links Lanley to The Music Man‘s Harold Hill while applying the absurd randomness of Hill’s opposition to pool to Lanley’s support for a monorail. The question of “Why a monorail?” is raised precisely once, by Lisa, and Lanley cleverly distracts her; the point isn’t so much what he’s selling as how he sells it. He’s literally all flash, and the Springfieldianites are more than happy to be taken in. (As Mayor Quimby says, “Just tell us your idea, and we’ll vote for it!”) The episode also takes The Music Man‘s original story of a con man who grows close to the folks he’s trying to swindle, and redirects it into a savage indictment of politics and business. The episode’s bitter lesson, after all, is “You can fool all of the people all of the time [except Marge].”

The episode’s second act expands on this message through a series of monorail-related vignettes. Lanley’s slick presence suddenly lights up Springfield’s schools and TVs. Nobody thinks about the monorail in terms of what it actually is (i.e., a mass transit system); instead, it’s a receptacle for everything they want their town and their lives to become. Lanley could be a stand-in for any kind of demagogue, whether cultural, political, religious, etc. – the point is that he calculates his pitch so that the rubes feel they’d be doing themselves a disservice to not buy into him. He’s like a one-man rendition of the infomercials I analyzed a while back. (In many ways, he’s akin to the Leader from the later episode “The Joy of Sect.”) He hooks most of Springfield, including of course Homer, who decides that becoming a monorail conductor is his “lifelong dream.”

Here, the episode introduces a new and vital plot thread: the father-son relationship between Homer and Bart, and by extension, Homer’s role as an authority figure within his family. In an episode that begins by branding Homer as an especially incompetent patriarch, it really is, perhaps unconsciously, his “lifelong dream” to restore himself to a position of respect before his wife and children, specifically Bart. However, as Homer’s fortune rises along with the respect he receives from Bart, Marge discovers that Lanley is essentially a smooth-talking sociopath. The rest of the episode brings these parallel plots to their logical conclusion as Homer leads the monorail on its maiden voyage and Marge hurries to somehow save her town and her husband.

Marge’s detour into North Haverbrook is both unnerving and fascinating. It’s like a vision into Springfield’s possible future, as determined by its citizens’ short-sightedness and gullibility. This is a ghost town with a poorly-hidden secret. It’s also a tragedy, because according to Lanley’s spiel, all the town wanted was to be “put… on the map.” Lanley is an easy answer to difficult problems, whether personal (Homer wants to be a model father) or city-wide (the people of Springfield crave national renown). And Marge, as the hard-working mother, is automatically suspicious of everything the monorail represents. On her trip, she meets creepy monorail technician Sebastian Cobb, and together they return to Springfield… only to find that Homer has already started the monorail.

The episode’s last act is a curious mesh of disaster movie, political satire, and family melodrama. This comes complete with riffs on celebrity culture, more incompetence on the part of political leaders, and several more forays into absurdism – whether with Homer’s Chuck Jones-style viewing of Bart as an anchor, or the continued but superfluous presence of Leonard Nimoy. It’s resolved in a typically absurdist way as well, with the heroism being divvied up between Nimoy, Homer, and a giant donut. But how else could an episode based around a faulty monorail end? What’s impressive is how the show keeps the emotional stakes high even while realism runs low. The titular battle between Marge and the monorail rapidly becomes a fight for her town and her family, and Homer is still able to be temporarily recuperated as a legitimate father figure, since in an act of (ridiculous) leadership, he disarms the monorail’s destructive capabilities.

Thus, the Simpson family (and by extension, Springfield) averts any harm caused by its indulgence in fast answers, and is put back in order with Marge and Homer as its equal leaders. The episode’s conclusion, however, avoids settling on too triumphant of a note, as Marge narrates, “And that was the only folly the people of Springfield ever embarked upon.  Except for the popsicle stick skyscraper.  And the 50-foot magnifying glass.  And that escalator to nowhere.” This finale sarcastically suggests that the townspeople’s extreme ignorance is cyclical – although you can fool all of the people some of the time, there’s also a time when you can’t. (Specifically, right after they realize that they’ve been fooled.) As usual, the writers wield humor to put the finishing touches on their ideological points.

This is just a great, brilliant episode. It presents its satire simultaneously on macro and micro levels, as the city and the family, two groups of people driven to make poor decisions for selfish reasons. It also links these ideas to government oversight and free enterprise to give a very full picture of an America where everyone’s looking out for himself – except Marge, who has the public interest at heart. The show sees all these institutions as fundamentally flawed, but sometimes necessary. Despite all the greed, incompetence, and misguided choices, they can still be redeemed, if only through cosmic intervention… or donuts.

So I think “Marge vs. the Monorail” is genius. What about you?

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Sex is SCARY!!

I am here in PA with Ashley, so while we may be busy together and unable to write, when we do it shall contain the full force of both of our creative wellsprings. (PS: it’s fucking awesome.)

And so, in addition to a number of wholesome, fun activities together (kissing, watching movies, eating) we have been watching a number of MST3K videos together on YouTube. Now, although my face is all leaking and itchy for some reason, making me disoriented and uncomfortable, I’ve been trying to form & express coherent thoughts – and now I’m going to try this in blog form. Because of course, as I was telling Ashley yesterday, the analysis never ends. The words “media studies” on my CAMS major t-shirt mean studying media: i.e., every single form of communication since the beginning of history is up for grabs. Movies, yes, and the Internet, TV, radio, pamphlets, skywriting, tattoos, posters, messages engraved on satellites, smoke signals, cave paintings – they’re all media.

"Teen Talk"

This also includes a flyer we were reading entitled “Teen Talk” distributed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Population Affairs, which details the Department’s opinions on teenage sexuality; although it’s an ephemeral piece of informational literature, it’s nonetheless worth analyzing on a number of levels: the style and content of the flyer can show us, for example, what the U.S. government (as of 2003-2005) wants to tell the youth of the nation, and how they think they can best get these ideas across.

To be honest, its existence as a product of organizations within organizations, under the banner of the federal government, has kind of an Orwellian vibe to me – as if it was being produced by Pornosec within the Ministry of Truth or something. And you can know that someone with a talent for graphic design and a supposed eye for what appeals to kids these days was hired, at some point, to put this together, probably to arrange the pre-written script into a presentable format. We see a bunch of totally typical-looking kids – really carefully typical-looking, that is, engineered to be your ordinary, ethnically diverse group of sexually confused, inquisitive teenagers – presumably asking questions like, “Should I have sex now or wait?” The information is written like a pseudo-FAQ: no one’s really asking them “What should I know if I decide not to have sex?”, but dammit, the question’s going to be answered; it’s also interesting how the phrase “Decisions about sex may be the most
important decisions you’ll ever make, so think before you act” is placed at the top of the page, in quotations, as if citing some great youth educator, but without attribution – so it’s really just another message from the great, amorphous, and apparently reliable “Office of Population Affairs,” which wants you to know that “You Are More Than Just a Body.”

I’m not condemning the flyer’s messages or anything. Young people are stupid and them having less sex would probably be a good thing. But Ashley and I both noticed its resemblance to the hilarious exploitation masterpiece Sex Madness (1938), whose climax involves an otherwise innocent woman blinding her husband and killing her baby, if I recall right, with her secret shame, syphilis. “STDs can be painful,” the flyer explains with a typical penchant for bolds and italics as emphasis devices. “They can make it impossible to have a baby. Some are incurable, and some may even cause death.” DEATH! INCURABLE! NO BABIES! It’s pretty damn sensationalistic; it goes for the “educate through shock value” approach. And what better way to scare kids away from sex than the by using the hellfire-and-brimstone of human sexuality, the STD.

(We’ve been talking about the terminology used, and Wikipedia helpfully explains: venereal disease, of course, is the more outdated term coming from Venus, the Roman goddess of love; STD describes a disease – i.e., symptoms are being exhibited; and STI just means an infection, that the infecting agent is present in your body even if the disease hasn’t exhibited itself yet, so it’s more inclusive.)

I just find it really interesting how the government tries to reach young people. And, more often than not, they end up leaning toward puritanical Sex and Reefer Madness-like extremes, because apparently subtlety just doesn’t work when you’re trying to get into the heads of the young. And besides, it’s just really fun to overanalyze whatever’s available. It makes stays in medical waiting rooms far more entertaining. Why, for example, do they capitalize specific letters? “DON’T BE FOOLED into thinking most teenagers are having
sex.” Capitalization for emphasis IS SUCH A HANDY TOOL. Just so long as you know how and why to use it. Also, why are so many of the headings capitalized like titles – “What Should I Know About Pressure?” Doesn’t look a title to me; I think “What should I know about pressure?” would be way more effective to preserving the illusion of these being actual questions asked by teenagers. So, all that said, on the surface you might just say, “It’s a fucking flyer about teen sexuality. Nothing to analyze there.” But I, obviously, beg to differ.

I was going to continue this post by discussing MST3K, but in the midst of research, I got very distracted – so I’m going to write a whole post about it later on.

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